By Colin Covert
Samuel L. Jackson’s character is one to watch.
Aside from sapphire swimming pools, there is no water in sight of Lakeview Terrace, a tidy cul-de-sac development in suburban Los Angels. Instead, just beyond the drop-off, there are canyons of tinder-dry scrub and distant, growing wildfires. Even before the story begins, a pall of menace hangs over the cliffside community.
The conflagration ignites when newlyweds Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington) spark a war of nerves with their formidable next-door neighbor. Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) is a vindictive LAPD patrolman determined to make life hell for the newcomers. Chris and Lisa’s crime? Their interracial marriage.
The battle lines are drawn early, as Abel peers at the Mattsons from an upstairs window, framed in a sinister close-up that tells us all we need to know about his tightly wound personality. As a cop, he’s a protector of the social order, but Abel’s version of that pact is warped by old slights and simmering resentments.
When he smiles at Chris and Lisa, it’s one of those patented Sam Jackson smiles: confident, in command, menacing, maybe hiding something, maybe up to no good, anything but genial. He begins a cat-and-mouse game of making their lives difficult, shining a searchlight in their bedroom window, messing with their air conditioning, but always covering his actions with plausible deniability.
As the pitch rises from unpleasant to unbearable, Chris bends over backward in the name of diplomacy, both because he’s the let’s-be-reasonable type and because he’s wary of displaying any racial animosity in front of his black wife. A master of street guile, Abel sizes up Chris’s insecurities and batters them mercilessly, belittling his manhood and endangering his home until he has Chris wobbling precariously off the rails.
Abel knows all about the LAPD’s rules on deadly force. All he has to do is provoke Chris to fight back. We haven’t seen a thug with a badge this mesmerizing since Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning turn in “Training Day.”
Slick, savvy and well-executed, “Lakeview Terrace” is a typical studio release polished to a blinding sheen thanks to a superior cast and Neil LaBute, America’s most dazzlingly gifted un-famous film director. With Hitchcockian pacing and slow-building tension, LaBute probes deeper into the characters of Abel, Chris and Lisa than your standard nerve-twister.
The film deftly adds shades of gray and psychological depth, giving the script’s melodramatic machinations’ exceptional pull. We can second-guess almost every twist, but we want to see how it happens to these compelling characters.