Lakeview Terrace

Having mined dramatically and effectively sexism, misogyny, and misanthropy, the timely problem of racism would seem a good subject to explore for director Neil LaBute, yet he is defeated by a psycho-political thriller, which has a promising beginning, but then quickly deteriorates into a formulaic, logic-defying narrative, in which smart characters behave stupidly.

The Screen Gems presentation of the Overbrook Entertainment Production (Will Smith and James Lassiter's company) world-premiered in France's Deauville Film Festival, which specializes in American indies, and will be released theatrically stateside September 19.

Thematically belonging to a cycle of thrillers of the late 1980s and early 1990s, as scripted by David Loughery and Howard Korder, from the former's story, “Lakeview Terrace” could be described as a suburban drama about “the neighbor from hell.”

Like John Schlesinger's “Pacific Heights,” and its central couple, which was white (Matthew Modine and Melanie Griffith), the central unit here is also a newlywed couple, albeit a bi-racial one, reflecting the new demographics of American society. When the saga begins, Caucasian Chris and African American Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) have just moved into a new suburban house. What was intended to be a dream home on a quiet Southern California cul-de-sac gradually becomes a nightmarish ordeal for the young loving couple.

Indeed, soon, the duo become the target of their next-door neighbor, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), a stern, tightly wound LAPD officer, who has appointed himself the watchdog of the neighborhood. Turner's nightly foot patrols and overly watchful eyes bring comfort to some, but he becomes increasingly intimidating and harassing to the newlyweds. His persistent intrusions into their lives ultimately turn tragic when the couple decides to fight back.

“Lakeview Terrace” is meant to be an au courant, button-pushing thriller, at once reflecting and exploiting the paranoia that has defined American culture in the post 9/11 era. Narratively though, the feels like an updated version of a series of domestic violence tales about invaders, be they “the roommate from hell” (“Single White Female”) or “the babysitter from hell” (“The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”).

Early on, we get the sense of Turner as an obsessive Los Angeles cop, who guards his neighborhood with the same passion and zeal that he brings to his patrol route. The single father of a teenaged daughter and preteen son, he is literally a one-man security force, ensuring that his strict standards of behavior are adhered to, even if this means violating a few norms and laws in the process.

In contrast, Chris and Lisa Mattson represent a progressive, liberal, upwardly mobile, future-oriented couple. As soon as they move in next door to Turner, he shows disapprovals of their interracial marriage. Hoping to rid the neighborhood of anything or anyone deemed “undesirable” or “unwanted,” Turner launches a series of escalating pranks and insults against the Mattsons.

First, he ignores their request to focus his high-voltage safety lights away from their bedroom, then he disrupts a housewarming party. In short order, Turner takes full advantage of his police connections to antagonize his new neighbors with impunity, hoping to force them to move out.

Following generic conventions, the worst incidents and accidents occur on the hottest day of the year, including a wildfire. Turning point occurs, when the couple's air conditioner is sabotaged in the middle of a heat wave and their car tires are mysteriously slashed. As a result, the Mattsons begin to suspect that Turner is behind all of their troubles. However, lacing hard evidence, they can only try to negotiate a truce, an offer Turner simply rejects.

Turner's anger flares and his ego humiliated, when his use of inappropriate force on the job lands him on extended leave and he discovers his daughter has been spending time with Lisa. Now utterly committed to revenge, he devotes himself fulltime to harassing his young neighbors, raising the stakes by hosting a raucous bachelor party at his house that goes on all night. With music still blasting at 3:00 am, Chris attempts to reason with Turner in an attempt to get some quiet. But Turner turns the tables on Chris, forcing him into a compromising position with the party strippers, which (wouldn't you know it) is taped and later presented to Lisa as proof of her hubby's misconduct.

As Turner crosses the line from annoying neighbor to dangerous adversary, the couple tries to fight back, which only feeds Turner’s fury and increases his already uncontrollable fury. The resentment between the neighbors continues to build, and it becomes clear that it’s only a matter of time before the situation escalates into a potentially deadly stand off.

The movie is well cast with Samuel L. Jackson (“Pulp Fiction”), who may be older by a decade or so from the character he plays, Patrick Wilson, who is perfectly cast as the Caucasian professional (“Little Children”), Kerry Washington (“Ray”).

However, the fact that the racist is played by a black actor could have yielded much more interesting results, but as scripted and directed, Turner remains an enigma. Who is he Very little by way of psychology and motivation is provided, which is a problem for Abel is an “American monster,” an abusive father even to his own children.

While Neil LaBute continues to sharpen his skills as a director, he still lacks what he takes to make a stylish thriller that keeps you at the edge of the seat. That said, I doubt that even a more seasoned and skillful director could have improved on the screenplay of David Loughery, who previously penned “The Three Musketeers” and “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier”)

Director of cinematography Rogier Stoffers (“Disturbia”) gives the film a polished look, but to increase the tension level, the editing by Joel Plotch (who also cut LaBute's previous thriller, equally disappointing, “The Wicker Man”) could have been snappier and the pacing faster.

Several years ago, Mark Pellington directed a similarly political thriller for Screen Gems, “Arlington Road,” which was far more intelligent as a Hitchcockian study of evil, also centering on domestic terrorism. But “Lakeview Terrace” is too blatant, overstressing its ideas and thrills when simple understatement would have yielded a more chilling effect. Contrived and derivative, the movie doesn't fully exploit the potentially powerful emotional charge of the story.

Cast Abel Turner – Samuel L. Jackson Chris Mattson – Patrick Wilson Lisa Mattson – Kerry Washington Harold Perreau – Ron Glass Donnie Eaton – Justin Chambers Javier Villareal – Jay Hernandez Celia Turner – Regine Nehy Marcus Turner – Jaishon Fisher Captain Wentworth – Robert Pine Clarence Darlington – Keith Loneker Damon Richards – Caleeb Pinkett

Credits

A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Screen Gems presentation of an Overbrook Entertainment production. Produced by Will Smith, James Lassiter. Executive producers: Joe Pichirallo, John Cameron, David Loughery, Jeffrey Graup. Co-producer: Orin Woinsky. Directed by Neil LaBute. Screenplay: David Loughery, Howard Korder, from a story by Loughery. Camera: Rogier Stoffers. Editor: Joel Plotch. Music: Mychael Danna, Jeff Danna. Production designer: Bruton Jones. Art directors: Tom T. Taylor, Paul Sonski. Set designer: Mick Cukurs. Set decorator: Don Diers. Costume designer: Lynette Meyer. Sound: Lee Orloff; supervising sound editor, Ronald Eng. Visual effects supervisor: Rocco Passionino. Visual effects: Zoic Studios. Stunt coordinator: Ben Bray.

MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 106 Minutes.