Yes, it was the golden age of the "fill-in-the-blank from hell" thriller-that time when your babysitter (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle), your roommate (Single White Female), your co-worker (The Temp), the girl next door (The Crush) or your kid's new stepparent (Domestic Disturbance) was a psycho-in-waiting. Lakeview Terrace appears in an age when paranoia seems just a bit more justified, and you'd think that there would be room to re-explore the genre in light of this. Instead, we get more or less what we would have gotten 18 years ago: middling melodrama too concerned with providing visceral kicks to uncover anything truly psychologically insightful.
Our unsuspecting victims: Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson) and his wife Lisa (Kerry Washington), a bi-racial couple re-locating from Northern California to a Los Angeles suburb during a hot summer. Their from-hell adversary: Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), their next-door neighbor and also an L.A.P.D. beat cop. It turns out Abel isn't too fond of the idea of a white man and a black woman together, and he has his own unique way of demonstrating his antipathy: shining annoying security lamps through their windows, wrecking their air conditioning and so on, while basically daring the Mattsons to call in local law enforcement and take their word over his.
The "cop from hell" isn't exactly a new variation on the theme; Ray Liotta filled the role in Unlawful Entry back in the heyday. Screenwriters David Loughery and Howard Korder do make an effort at turning Abel into a complex character rather than a boogeyman. Abel's rigid expectations-manifested in everything from his parenting to his treatment of a black man suspected of domestic violence-make his motivations intriguing, and there's a bracing tension as the no-nonsense black cop challenges Chris's friends on their liberal perspectives at a housewarming party. Jackson dials down his recent high-volume tendencies to play one of those guys who can justify anything to himself, even if he's really just feeding his own demons.
But there's something blurry about Lakeview Terrace, and it's not just because of the smoke drifting in from the metaphorically significant brush fire chewing its way through the film's Southern California hillsides. It seems that the script wants to probe the underlying racial tension not just between Abel and Chris, but between Chris and Lisa, the elephant in the room of their mixed-race marriage. Eventually, however, even that degree of subtext begins to feel like too much for director Neil LaBute. Doing another piece of Hollywood "will direct for food" work, LaBute leaves behind all of the incendiary skill he brings to his own material. The film degenerates into a rote pattern of escalating confrontations, inevitably involving a knock-down drag-out between Abel and Chris. As generally happened with Lakeview Terrace's long-ago cousins in the "from hell" sub-genre, the antagonist gets less interesting-and less believable-the crazier his behavior gets, until it's just a matter of waiting for the last shot to be fired or the last punch to be thrown. Lakeview Terrace doesn't really tell us anything about how much the world has changed over the past 15 years-only about how much screenwriting has stayed the same.Lakeview Terrace ★★✩✩✩
Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Patrick Wilson. Directed by Neil LaBute. Rated PG-13.