Your Friends and Neighbors: Racial tension, above and below the surface, in Neil LaBute's Lakeview Terrace

Earlier this year, when I found myself assigned to jury duty on a drug-related trial at the Los Angeles Superior Court, our jury foreman turned out to be a blond, blue-eyed reality-TV producer from the bedroom community of Altadena. During the jury-selection process, when the judge asked if we had any particular positive or negative feelings about the police, the producer responded that he was very pleased with the work of the LAPD, who had helped to rid his neighborhood of some unsavory characters prone to "smoking marijuana and listening to hip-hop" at unconscionable hours of the day and night. This, in turn, elicited rolled eyes and an audible huff from a young African American man also seated in the jury box. Lakeview Terrace is a movie that lives in such moments.

At first glance, it may puzzle followers of dramatist and occasional filmmaker Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men, The Shape of Things) that the American stage's crown prince of psychosexual power plays and the post-coital mindfuck has opted to follow his universally mocked 2006 remake of The Wicker Man by working as a director-for-hire on a yuppies-in-peril thriller that seems about two decades past its freshness date. But peer beneath Lakeview Terrace's lurid, exploitation-movie surface and you will find a vintage LaBute proposition: a taut three-hander that explores the space between surface appearances and realities, between what people say and what they really think.

Set in the titular suburb of Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley — the one where Rodney King was assaulted by police in 1991 — the movie is about the troubles that arise when a newlywed interracial couple moves in next-door to a widowed African American cop with three decades of service under his belt. There goes the neighborhood.

Lakeview Terrace begins with a shrewd moving-in scene, during which LAPD officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) glances out his window at the new arrivals over the septic tank and briefly mistakes Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson), the jocular, white husband of an alluring, well-dressed black woman (Kerry Washington), for one of the movers. A bit later, they meet-cute in the driveway — Chris smoking a covert cigarette behind the wife's back while rap music blares from his iPod, until Abel taps on his car window, flashlight in hand. "You can listen to that noise all night long, but when you wake up in the morning, you'll still be white," the cop says before uttering a forced chuckle. Things only get more Pacific Heights from there: Turner's megawatt security lights illuminate the Mattson bedroom like a football field; air-conditioner wires are not-so-mysteriously cut in the dead of summer; tires are slashed. When someone breaks into the young couple's garage in the middle of the night, Chris arms himself with his college lacrosse stick before running downstairs to investigate. Can you get any whiter than that?

Because it's being marketed as a run-of-the-mill psycho-cop romp, Lakeview Terrace will likely be evaluated solely on those terms. And as a suspense picture, it's only ho-hum, LaBute being the sort of director — much like his fellow playwright-filmmaker, David Mamet — who possesses only the most rudimentary know-how concerning the tools of cinema. (When he really wants to emphasize something, he cuts to a close-up and adds a musical sting on the soundtrack.) But like a lot of better genre fare, Lakeview Terrace uses its predictable premise to mount a stealth attack on the audience's sensibilities. Written by David Loughery and Howard Korder, this may be the perfect movie for the political moment, in that it's about people's latent prejudices — the ones they don't admit to in mixed company and perhaps can't even acknowledge to themselves. Wilson, in particular, is very good as the Chicago native who went to Stanford on an athletic scholarship and, despite fancying himself an open-minded liberal, gives off an air of smug WASP privilege. He moves across the screen with the blissful self-confidence of someone who's never known what it means to be glared upon with innate suspicion. Watching him, we understand how an Abel Turner might take umbrage.

Lakeview Terrace never quite realizes when enough is enough, hunkering down the narrative with an overly symbolic brush fire that threatens our picture-post card suburbia, giving Jackson's character a wholly unnecessary backstory and culminating in an over-the-top finale full of ethereal light and crucifix poses. But along the way, it's one of those rare American movies about race in which things are shades of gray. Rather deftly, there's even a car crash or two, though that doesn't bring any of the movie's characters closer to a shared understanding. Can't we all just get along? LaBute doesn't deign to pretend like he knows the answer.

 
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