There's something to be said for making a mainstream movie that depicts behavior as taboo as destructive racism on the part of a black main character. It's probably even less common for a director to opt to tackle this kind of phenomenon not in some gritty urban drama, but in a wide-release Sam Jackson thriller. At least that's how Lakeview Terrace is marketed -- though for all its semi-successful attempts to ratchet up the intensity with every scene, it's pretty obvious that if the thriller side of this movie was in the driver's seat, the social-commentary side was riding shotgun, and probably reading the directions. The premise is that twentysomething couple Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa Mattson (Kerry Washington) move into the titular posh gated community in the Hollywood Hills, only to discover that their neighbor Abel (Samuel L. Jackson), an officer with the LAPD, appears to be totally crazy. He makes it clear that he disapproves of their relationship -- since Chris is white and Lisa is black -- and animosity grows, passive aggression becomes real aggression, and Chris and Lisa's imperfect marriage starts to crack under the pressure as the conflict violently comes to a head. This basic treatment sounds like the grounds for an interesting story, but unfortunately, the film often handles all the subject matter with a really distracting degree of heavy-handedness. While there are scenes that succeed in subtly hitting all the right nerves, evoking director Neil LaBute's trademark brand of uncomfortable realism, too many themes hinge on über-simplified paint-by-numbers clichés and hokey constructs. For example, the film thematically builds around an analogy in the form of a subplot about a wildfire that burns in distant view of the community. As the hostility incrementally escalates between Abel and the Mattsons, the fire is incrementally revisited, placing the characters on their balcony again and again to make the same observations about the inferno growing closer and more powerful, and recite the same transparently naïve lines about how, of course, the danger will never reach their (figuratively) insulated home. We get it! This kind of conflict threatens everybody! We get it! Especially those who seem immune! We get it! In the end, we all get burned! It's like a PSA; you're just waiting for Jackson to break the fourth wall, look into the camera and say, "It's time to end the hate. Nobody wins at this game, homes. Nobody wins." The stupid fire thing even comes up again when Chris puts a row of fully grown trees along his property line to block his view of Abel's yard. Official-voice-of-reason Lisa shakes her head in consternation and argues that this will only breed more antagonism, to which Chris halfheartedly responds that the landscaping is environmental: "Trees make oxygen, right?" And oxygen fuels fire! GET IT?!? It's that kind of triteness that keeps stealing the scene, especially when Chris and Lisa discuss their marriage. The parts are well acted, but the undergrad-film-student dialogue keeps veering toward soap-opera style. Which would be fine if this were just a thriller, but the highfalutin content about class and race makes the style feel awkward and incongruous.
Likewise, for all the overly obvious statements that Lakeview makes about the oh-so-shocking existence of racism amongst the upper middle class, deeper or more specific analysis of the issues continually gets dropped or muddled. Key scenes featuring Abel on the job or with his buddies on the force bring class politics into the discussion, but then once the topic's been broached, the actual hows and whys are never explored. It's clear enough that the age difference between Abel and the neighbor couple is supposed to bring a generational element to the equation, but a monologue shoehorned in near the climax about his tragic backstory seems to negate any actual social or cultural factors in his prejudice. It just shows the movie trying to be everything at once and falling short. You can't fault a director for wanting his protagonist to be a product of his or her own history and not just society's, but you also can't make an effective movie about racism and conspicuously leave out the larger social scheme that creates it -- it's distracting.
And for all the up-close imperfections that LaBute has always shown a knack for in the depiction of his main characters, Chris comes out weirdly clean, never showing so much as a hint of preconception or ignorance -- and there sure as hell isn't any examination of how the power differential effects the impact of racism when it comes from the minority side. The only power differential explored is the one between law enforcement and civilians, and that's definitely not breaking any cinematic ground. In fact, outside of some secondary content wherein Lisa talks to Abel's daughter about getting a hard time for dating white guys, there's not even a mention in the movie of the old-fashioned racism that black people still get from whites. It's easy to see that part of the idea of the film was to explore life in a world increasingly populated with adults who were never alive during the civil rights movement -- and that's a fascinating and important place to start -- but the thing about the premise is that it's just point A. For your movie to work, you still have to get to point B -- or really, anywhere.