Tuesday, September 1, 2009

DVD Review: Lakeview Terrace

Roger Ebert’s four-star review of Neil Labute’s Lakeview Terrace elicited within me the same reaction as when I read his four-star review for Alex Proyas’ Knowing. Here were two directors that I quite liked making films that were getting panned by everyone except Ebert – who seemed to be going to the other end of extreme with his four-star praising of films that were consistently getting one-star reviews. In Proyas’ case I was interested because I like the directors 1997 picture Dark City. In the case of Lakeview Terrace it was that I always knew, despite the atrocity that is The Wicker Man, that Neil Labute had a good mainstream movie in him. So when I read Ebert’s review of Lakeview Terrace I found the critic discussing and defending everything I expected to find in a good Labute film: a typical hate-filled male character, themes that aren’t so black and white, and something sinister always lurking beneath the surface. All I needed to do was give the film a shot.

One of the pleasures of working in education is that with all the time off in the summer I get a chance to catch a film like Lakeview Terrace on DVD. I have to say: the film is staggeringly (and surprisingly) good. It’s not cheesy like a lot of other domestic thrillers (I was half expecting from the trailers that this film would be another Unlawful Entry or Pacific Heights), and Labute’s film has some big ideas in it for a mainstream movie. It’s no wonder the production company botched the ad campaign for this movie. How in the hell do you sell a Neil Labute film, a real Neil Labute film, to the masses?

It’s not just the interracial storyline I found intriguing in the film. I also liked how Labute was able to seamlessly mesh thriller elements into his larger, more uncomfortable purpose. Abel (Samuel L. Jackson) isn’t necessarily a stalker or serial murderer – he’s a messed-up individual, sure – but watch the way Labute reveals Abel’s intentions through a slow burn process. It fits perfectly with Abel’s ever increasing insanity. Sure he doesn’t like an interracial couple next door to him, but exactly why? Labute meticulously reveals that Abel is a complex man, and feels the way he does because we all probably feel the same way about other issues we’re passionate about.

Abel is a typical Labute male. He’s extremely confident in his views, has authority over people, and is looked up to. And he really doesn’t like the “modern” woman. Like Aaron Eckhart or Jason Patric he is someone who is confident to the point of no return. There’s no way of convincing Labute’s male characters (and it’s safe to say Labute himself, too) that they’re wrong in their bull-headed thinking. What’s interesting about Abel is that Labute makes him a cop – therefore giving one of his male characters the most authority they’ve ever been allowed. Abel isn’t like the other male Labute characters in the sense that he doesn’t just rule over his corporate buddies (In the Company of Men) or yuppie circle of friends (Your Friends and Neighbors), or the “elite” art community (The Shape of Things); Abel rules over his neighborhood (he “graces” the community by roving the streets at night) and his partner in the Department. He is ruler over the law in his book, and it makes for one of the scariest male characters Labute has ever filmed.

There’s a crucial scene in a bar where Abel, after instigating a scary altercation with his neighbor Chris (Patrick Wilson) offers to buy him a drink. He begins to share that it’s the third anniversary of his wife’s death, and slowly Chris looks upon Abel with different eyes…until Labute pulls the rug out from under us and shows Abel as a man who isn’t interested in sympathy, but instead using his wife’s death as an example of what’s wrong with Chris and his wife Lisa (Kerry Washington). Labute uses this tense scene of dialogue to underline the hatred and bigotry Abel represents. It’s a fascinating scene that reminded me of those great evil dialogue scenes found in earlier Labute woks (especially the “sauna scene” from Your Friends and Neighbors where Jason Patric tells a horrific memory with a haunting detachment).

Labute shoots the film in kind of a hazy light throughout (especially the end when the fires from around town start to reach the neighborhood where they filmed), evoking the feeling of ambiguity associated with noir films. It’s a perfect mood for the film, and I like how Labute often shoots Abel thought constricting objects like fences or windows (he can't see clearly the way the more progressive Chris and Lisa can). It’s a nice way of showing the differences in philosophies that these people share. Abel even makes it a point to always mention that Chris is a democrat, and there’s a great scene at a neighborhood party where Abel shoots down theories of Global Warming – Labute’s way of showing that Abel, and people who think like him, are dinosaurs and people who act and think and live like Chris and Lisa are progressive and clairvoyant…which is probably why Able needs flood lights on his house, because according to Labute Abel can’t see clearly.

Lakeview Terrace probably won’t be remembered in 10 years, but it’s an interesting film now. Labute uses fires all around Los Angeles as a perfect metaphor for the personal war Abel rages against Chris and Lisa. Labute also raises interesting questions about the nature of Chris and Lisa’s relationship between themselves and their parents. He doesn’t solve these impossible issues with cliché speeches or moments that seem to work solely for the sake of the thriller elements of the story; rather, Labute lets these hard questions linger in the air throughout his film, the viewer always aware that there is something lurking beneath this seemingly ordinary thriller.

I love being surprised by films like this. It’s another reason why we should just do away with trailers. The trailer for Lakeview Terrace gives the viewer the wrong impression about the film, and especially about Samuel L. Jackson’s performance. And what a performance it is. Jackson’s portrayal of Abel is one of the best performances of his career. So often Jackson is asked to be over the top, boisterous, and a “a presence” on screen. He can be those things successfully (like in Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown), or he can be them in dreadful caricatures (A Time to Kill, Snakes on a Plane); however, I love it when Jackson dials it down as he did in Black Snake Moan and here in Lakeview Terrace. Sure, some of the situations call for the louder Jackson to come through, but it’s a performance that relies more on nuances; the audience is always wondering what’s on Abel’s mind, what he’s going to do about it, and what’s simmering beneath the surface of this police officer.

Again, Lakeview Terrace is a huge surprise. I wasn’t expecting a thoughtful domestic drama. Labute does everything right here that he didn’t do in his previous attempts at mainstream filmmaking with The Wicker Man that it just solidifies my theory that: a.) the studio wouldn’t let Labute make the film he wanted, or b.) he and producer Nicolas Cage, knowing that they couldn’t make the movie they wanted, played the film off as a joke. Regardless it’s a refreshing bounce-back for Labute who has always made interesting character studies. Count Lakeview Terrace among the best of them.


  1. Lakeview Terrace movie is comedy and dramatic movie about the two neighbors...where one side there is a couple and on the other side there is a widowed father ...... he is always quarreling with the couple. it is really a very interesting movie. I download Lakeview terrace movie last night