Can't we all just get along? Apparently not in Neil Labute's universe, a singularly nasty realm where gender and race are fighting words and real-world divisions become bottomless chasms.
The writer-director made his name with scabrous satires of sexual politics, wherein men and women not only can't be friends, but are sworn enemies, and here he turns his venom toward race relations, though the poison goes down slightly easier thanks to the standard-thriller coating it's given.
Samuel L. Jackson dominates the action as Abel Turner, a widowed veteran L.A. cop vainly attempting to protect his kids by remaking the world around them in his image. He's got rules: the first and most important one being "There are rules" and anyone who fails to observe this code will feel his wrath. Of course, nobody sent a memo to the progressive yuppie couple who moves into the scenic McMansion next door. They're blissfully unaware that there's a viper in this suburban Eden, or that the simple nature of their relationship — she's black, he's white — is enough to set Abel off on a dangerous path. At first hubby Chris (Patrick Wilson) tries to make nice, though his attempts are met with subtle scorn, minor threats and taunts about "stealing brown sugar" and other less-than-friendly jibes. Wife Lisa (Kerry Washington) is less forgiving, but lets hubby do it his way, at least until the petty squabbles over floodlights and landscaping get very ugly.
Where Lakeview Terrace goes from here is straight into a confrontation as generic as the film's title, which reminds us that this is a genre picture complete with requisite phony fireworks and bloated violence. Along the way we get very solid performances — from Wilson, who adds some manly spark to a bland, mushy character, and Washington, who knows more than she lets on. These two are, of course, dwarfed by Jackson, whose outsized personality is both a bonus and a bummer — his slow burn becomes an erupting volcano. Labute has the chops to keep the tension high and the nerve to keep things uncomfortable long after the script tips its hand, with underlying themes devolving into excuses for a showdown. How unfortunate that we know how it's all going to end.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.