Lakeview Terrace, starring Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington as a young couple who move in next door to Samuel L. Jackson's older, lonely L.A.P.D. patrolman, looks like a fairly generic thriller — a revamp of the Kurt Russell-Ray Liotta 1992 thriller Unlawful Entry, where Liotta's psycho-cop gets obsessed with Russell and wife Madeline Stowe. Cop, neighbor, bad, good, yawn, stretch; been there, done that.
Except, as you watch Lakeview Terrace, you realize that there's something much more interesting than just good neighbor-bad cop going on in the film; watching Wilson and Washingon, you realize that this seemingly trivial thriller is actually willing to talk about interracial marriage and the challenges of marriage, about money, about power — all while delivering real suspense and scary jolts. Watching Jackson, you realize that he's not just turning in another of his slack shouting-and-swearing performances but delivering a real, fine performance. Director Neil LaBute (who previously made knockout dramas like In the Company of Men and The Shape of Things) seemed like an unusual choice for a movie as seemingly ordinary as Lakeview Terrace … until you watch it and realize it's anything but ordinary.
Chris Mattson (Wilson) and his wife Lisa (Washington) have just moved to the L.A. area, onto a quiet cul-de-sac far from the city; their next-door neighbor, Abel Turner (Jackson), is a father and beat cop with the L.A.P.D. Abel is set in his ways — he doesn't like his kid's iPods and double-checks what his daughter's wearing before she leaves for school; Chris and Lisa bother him. Is it because Chris is white and Lisa's black? Is it because they're both happy in their marriage, while he's alone? Because they're young and he's old? Because Chris can swoop in with his job at an organic grocery store chain and buy a house next door to the house Abel's worked all his life, his life on the line, to have?
It's all of those things, and it's none of them. And that's one of the pleasures of LaBute's direction, and his take on the script; there aren't any big speeches in Lakeview Terrace, just talking; there aren't any good guys or bad guys, just people. And let's be honest — most American movies never talk about race, or sex, or age, or class; Lakeview Terrace is brave, or crazy, or both, to take on all of them without descending into speeches or simplicity.
Fortunately, the cast is up to the challenge. Wilson plays a guy trapped between youth and manhood and not sure of how to make it from one to the other, a little weak, a little wrong. Washington brings a real, messy marriage to life through her work opposite Wilson; watching the film on DVD for a second time (and listening to the commentary track she delivers opposite LaBute), I had a much greater appreciation for her work . And Jackson delivers the kind of performance he used to — back before recent films like Snakes on a Plane and The Spirit where he's showered with money for shouting and swearing and being the public cartoon of himself. Abel's a man — proud, set in his ways, unwilling to accept the world's moving by, wishing there were something more. Abel does bad things in Lakeview Terrace, and so does Chris. And they have their reasons, just like we do.
Lakeview Terrace has to curve towards the predictable in its finale — you know how the film has to end, where these characters are headed. But it's how they get there — and why they get there — that really matters. LaBute and his crew capture the everyday creepiness of suburbia, California and L.A. — the glaring sunlight, the spooky quiet at night, the constant presence of beauty and the constant possibility of disaster — but they also make it somewhere you'd want to live and a life you'd want to protect, too. Lakeview Terrace looks like a standard, disposable, off-the-rack thriller — the DVD box art has a man with a gun and scared-looking couple, like a thousand other films — but this is one of those rare, remarkable times when you don't want to judge a film by its cover.