At one end of his career, Neil LaBute was an up-and-coming talent to be reckoned with. He earned a reputation as intelligent Mamet-like artist of uncompromising vision with movies like In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors, harsh, cynical films that looked under the rock of humanity and found icky, squirmy things. At the other end, there's The Wicker Man, a genuine, "what was he thinking?" movie, and the curious dud The Shape of Things, which couldn't quite reconcile LaBute's stage hat with his cinema hat. In the middle we have Nurse Betty and Possession, two exceptional Hollywood entertainments with gleaming surfaces and dark souls. As with David Gordon Green and his delightful, mainstream comedy Pineapple Express, this type of "compromise" may represent LaBute's real calling.
With his seventh feature Lakeview Terrace, LaBute has once again managed to take a surface thriller and use it to work through some of humanity's ugliest and most hateful issues. It begins with a picture of suburbia, USA. Single father Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) struggles to get his kids up in the morning and off to school, but struggles even harder in relating to them. He knows how to boss them around, but doesn't understand them. (He makes his son change basketball jerseys to reflect "their" favorite team.) Later, he peers out the window and watches the new neighbors move in. He's clearly perturbed that it's a clean-cut white guy, Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson), married to a beautiful black girl, Lisa (Kerry Washington). We eventually learn that he has his reasons, his own emotional wounds, to explain why and how his buttons have been pushed, but it launches an all-out battle of wills.
It begins when Abel's ultra-bright security lights shine right in the couple's new bedroom window (they haven't bought shades yet). Chris goes over to ask him to turn them off. Abel would like to, but it's complicated. They're on a timer, etc. All of Chris' encounters with Abel play like little chess moves. Abel is always careful to smile and invite his new neighbor in for a beer, without ever saying anything threatening or making a move. Yet his entire demeanor is aggressive and condescending. An intruder breaks into the couple's yard, shuts off their air conditioning and leaves a little warning talisman, made out of Chris' clandestine cigarette butts (Lisa doesn't know he smokes). Did Abel do it, or can it be blamed on the kids who hang out near the suburbs in the nearby arroyo?
Anyone who has seen the trailer knows that Abel is a cop and that Chris and Lisa are up against a brick wall when it comes to taking action against their potentially dangerous neighbor. Abel knows exactly how to turn the tables on Chris at any given moment, making any infraction look like it was Chris' doing. All this stuff was already covered with ample tension in Jonathan Kaplan's Unlawful Entry (1992), with Ray Liotta as the cop and Kurt Russell and Madeleine Stowe as the loving couple. The obvious twist in LaBute's version is the racial angle. Many supporting characters comment on it, often in lewd or derogatory terms, but many others simply ignore it. But ultimately, that's not LaBute's real point. His real point has nothing to do with black and white, but rather with red and blue (states).
Chris is described early on as a graduate of UC Berkeley, which means he's an educated (elitist) liberal (weenie); he's so liberal, he marries into a black family to show how racially tolerant he is. Moreover, Chris never once mentions or uses Abel's race against him in their clashes. Abel, on the other hand, is a full-fledged conservative (nutjob), who prays in the mornings and polishes his guns at night. During a polite dinner party with Abel in attendance, politics enters into the discussion. Chris and Lisa's friends begin Bush-bashing, and Abel flares up, winning the argument without saying much of anything. He has force on his side, and a fearsome willingness to enter the fray. As a cop and as a Republican, he believes that an offense is the best defense. Abel plays many roles in the film, neighbor, protector, villain, and all of them have a kind of physical upper hand. Chris only comes out ahead when he learns to embrace his inner NRA, or in other words to abandon any concept political standing.In essence, LaBute has decided that black-and-white relations are nothing compared to the searing hatred that risen up between right and left in these past eight years; it's much more dramatic and frightening watching the fearlessly aggressive and the helplessly passive butting heads. But it's even more frightening to see that righties are not always 1) white and rich, 2) stupid hicks. Hence we get Abel, perhaps the most canny movie villain of the year. But LaBute hasn't forgotten that he's making a movie, and so he ramps up the visual suspense with the arrival of a giant California fire (during a drought, of course) that rages closer and closer to the suburbs. Over the course of the film, the skies turn hazier, then redder, and finally black as the conflict comes to a head. So, yes, Lakeview Terrace is very much another gleaming surface Hollywood entertainment, but LaBute has once again managed to find something squirming and icky -- and horrifyingly truthful -- inside.