A couple of years ago, director Neil LaBute gave us Nicolas Cage in a bear suit with his terrible remake of The Wicker Man, one of the very worst movies I've ever seen. This, from a guy who had a promising start with bitter, dark dramas like Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men.
His latest, Lakeview Terrace, doesn't quite get LaBute back to past glory. Oh, it's better than The Wicker Man. Then again, Bio-Dome and Showgirls are better than The Wicker Man. (Although I must admit that I caught Wicker on cable a couple of nights ago and laughed my ass off. The moment where Cage dropkicked Leelee Sobieski is unintentional comic gold.)
Lakeview Terrace is definitely LaBute's most commercial venture yet. Chris and Lisa (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), a newlywed couple, move into their California dream home, unaware of the domestic horrors that await them. Their new neighbor is a racist terror named Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), a Los Angeles cop who recently lost his wife and doesn't approve of interracial marriage. When he first talks to Chris, Abel tells the rap-listening supermarket employee that no matter how much he listens to that music, he's still going to be white.
Abel has high-powered security lights that keep the couple up at night, horrendous block-party manners where he verbally obliterates most people in attendance, and detestable parenting skills: He smacks his daughter across the face during an argument in Lisa's backyard. Abel is a nasty guy, for sure--so nasty that the film can only go in one predictable direction, toward a typical showdown ending. In other words, the film offers few surprises.
Too bad, because the performances aren't bad, and the film looks good. LaBute does an interesting job of capturing the horror of approaching wildfires, as one atomic-looking blaze bears down on the main characters' houses. One shot, in which Chris and Lisa observe what looks like a mushroom cloud, is especially memorable.
Jackson is good in this sort of obsessive, rage-filled role. However, the script has provided him with a suburban monster that is beyond belief, the sort of thing that only shows up in movies. In a film that's looking for horror based in reality, the ridiculousness of his character impeded my ability to be scared or uncomfortable. I found myself shaking my head a lot as the film raced toward its inevitable ending.
Wilson and Washington's roles are far more realistic and deserved a better movie. Wilson, so good in the suburban drama Little Children, captures the anxiety of a man who can't protect himself or his spouse. Washington, probably best known for her role in Ray, is especially good in a scene during which she attempts to befriend Abel's daughter (Regine Nehy).
In the end, their performances are all for naught, because LaBute and his scriptwriters don't know where to stop. Not only is Abel a racist, bad cop; he's a crappy parent, a failed husband, a snoop, a psychopath, a poor dresser and so much more. I half expected him to sprout wings and fangs, and then leap from his roof and swoop down on his neighbors to bite their heads off. Actually ... that would've been kind of cool.
Lakeview Terrace is everything you've seen before in bad-neighbor and dirty-cop dramas, with all of the clichés from those types of films combined. It wastes the performances of Jackson, Wilson and Washington--but, thankfully, none of them don a bear suit and start punching people. I guess that's semi-good news for LaBute fans.