A film review by Craig J. Koban
2008, PG-13, 103 mins.
2008, PG-13, 103 mins.
Abel: Samuel L. Jackson / Chris: Patrick Wilson / Lisa: Kerry
Washington / Javier: Jay Hernandez
TERRACE is as phony as a three-dollar bill.
Even worse, this movie is wrong.
it's dead, ass-backwards wrong on so many levels that
you are left questioning the mindset of all participants involved.
Perhaps its biggest sin is that it tries to be a scathing and
thought-provoking commentary on modern societal race relations and how -
under just the right set of circumstances - anyone can become a raving
bigot. These type of dicey
and weighty thematic issues were dealt with flawlessly in Paul Haggis’ CRASH,
but in LAKEVIEW TERRACE it sure is hard to give a damn, especially when
the film feels more akin to be a dumb and flaccid UNLAWFUL ENTRY clone and
a repetitive “neighbor from hell” sub genre flick.
characters and their actions in this film rarely, if ever, feel plausible.
These are not flesh and blood human beings, but rather puppets at
the mercy of a formulaic and tediously silly script whose utter
pretentiousness and self-indulgent grandstanding is thunderously
laughable. Consider: you are
a wealthy, well-to-do, yuppie thirty-something man that has just moved
into a luxurious and affluent neighborhood and are quickly and mercilessly
terrorized by a cruel, crazy, and vindictive authoritarian neighbor that
makes it abundantly clear that you will never be welcome to stay.
Then, when your malicious neighbor takes actions that can easily be
deemed as criminal, wouldn’t the first instinct be to abruptly put up a
"for sale" sign and leave to avoid any more hardships, especially when you
clearly see no other recourse to amend things with this sicko?
the characters in LAKEVIEW TERRACE don’t act in accordance with any
semblance of logic and reality, which only serves to prove the film’s
hollowness. What’s most
bizarre is that this is all courtesy of Neil LaBute, a strong filmmaker
and playwright that has made bleak and desolate social satires that
tantalized us on the nature of humanity’s treatment towards fellow man
(see his scathing and incendiary IN THE COMPANY OF MEN, his debut effort,
or even his later YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS, which was a scandalous
expose on suburban couples’ sex lives). IN THE COMPANY OF MEN in particular was a masterstroke at showing masculine cruelty and ambivalence and
was compelling for its unsettling and edgy portrayals of misogyny gone horribly amok.
There are traces of this in LAKEVIEW TERRACE, but when the film
falls downright victim to its generic and ridiculously preposterous
narrative, then none of it holds up well to even modest scrutiny.
have often been asked if great performances can trump a bad
script, and I
have frequently stated that they can (at least…I think I have).
LAKEVIEW TERRACE just may be the first film I can recall that has
great performances by actors I truly admire that are tainted by awful
writing. Watching the film is
an exercise in seeing talented performers do what they can with beyond
mediocre material. Most, if
not all, of the actors in the film come off smashingly, but they are
wasted by TERRACE’S plot, which seems to have been sluggishly cobbled
together out of various “Screenwriting: How To…” textbooks.
are initially introduced to an upper class suburb of East Los Angeles
where a widowed and tightly wound up police office lives with
his two kids. He is Abel
Turner, played with real gusto and fiery passion by Samuel L. Jackson, one
of the more dependable actors at playing fire and brimstone types.
Abel is a man of deep emotional wounds.
He’s a 28-year veteran at a thankless job that people don’t
appreciate, has Internal Affairs all over him for various breeches of
ethical conduct, and has two children that don’t relate to him on most
levels. Perhaps the latter mentioned issue is a result of the fact
that Abel is an intimidating and egregiously strict disciplinarian and
wreaks a social dictatorship over his home.
has even more “issues”: he’s a racist that is marred by both social
and ethnic prejudices. He’s
lived an upbringing in the worst slums of the City of Angels, so there
certainly is some understanding of his inner demons. Because he does not want his family to live as he did as a
child, Abel becomes a staunch and tyrannical separatist. In his mind, he has created his own militantly run
neighborhood set by his own rules...and undesirables are not welcome, but all this changes with his new
the neighborhood is a liberal pair of yuppies, recently wed, named Chris
(Patrick Wilson, in another tirelessly decent performance) and Lisa
(Kerry Washington, also solid). Abel hates them from the very start. Why? They are an
interracial couple - Chris being white, Lisa being black - and they
represent a clear threat to his segregationist agenda for his own upbringing
of his kids. There are
attempts on Chris’ part to make nice with Abel, but he is quickly turned
off by his peculiar brand of acceptance.
One evening in particular sets the film in motion, and also really
sends Abel into a fit of angry hostility.
He comes home one evening and sees that his children are spying on
Chris and Lisa…while they are naked in their pool having sex.
To Abel, this is the straw the broke the camel’s back, and he
uses it as a validation for him engaging on a relentlessly cruel and savage
plan of psychological warfare against the couple in order to get them to
move out and away from him…for good.
setup of LAKEVIEW TERRACE, at least, is intriguing.
The initial verbal sparring that Abel engages in with the well
meaning, but hopelessly in over his head, Chris is involving and creates tension.
A more intrinsically compelling choice for the film would be to
make both men harsh victims of their respective and escalating prejudices
against one another. TERRACE,
unfortunately, takes the easiest route possible by making Jackson’s Abel
a total whack-job that goes from internalized and anti-social figure to
one of pure, black militant, white hating degenerate.
Of course, we are also offered up a series of rudimentary and
inanely predictable set pieces where we see Abel concoct his obligatory
plan to terrorize the couple with mind games large and small in manners
that grow increasingly absurd by the minute.
It’s the type of preordained cat n’ mouse game of will and
determination that we’ve seen countless times before, and here it is
just as bland: evil neighbor
terrorizes another good neighbor, good neighbor grows increasingly
despondent and bitter in return, so much so that he too engages in a plan
to wage war on the bad neighbor, culminating in scenes where loved ones
get hurt or threatened and the two battle it out in a third act showdown.
I would be willing to forgive LAKEVIEW TERRACE as a cheap, manipulative,
and seedy throwaway thriller that is entertainingly stupid and unintentional
ludicrous. Yet, there is
something really unsavory and off-putting about the film’s moral agenda
and message. What’s
polarizing is that the film is trying to be sobering and thoughtful with its racially heated themes, but it comes off as just the opposite.
The film goes out of its way to paint the middle-class black man as
the foaming at the mouth villain and the preppy, Liberal, tree-hugging
white upper class yuppie as the ultimate righteous hero.
Yes, making a film that deals with black racists would be
captivating, but TERRACE is as offensive minded as it is absurd. The whole lesson it offers up is that the root of all evil in
the world is a psychotic and teeth-clenched black man that goes bonkers
when he – gasp! – sees a successful white man score with a black
woman. LAKEVIEW TERRACE’s
belief that it’s being progressive minded is paradoxically offensive,
seeing as its message is clouded over by the fact that it's archaic and
backwards with its ideologies. The
film’s racial politics and peculiar brand of ethical sermonizing is kind
of teeth grating.
more off-putting is the film’s use of a natural disaster in what has to
be the silliest usage of a disaster to settle and close a story I’ve
seen. In the background
throughout the film we see that it is wildfire season in California and
the fires, although initially far off in the distance from Chris and
Lisa’s home, grow ominously closer to them as the film progresses to
its third act. The symbolism
here is really half-baked and asinine (oooohh…the escalating flames
represents the escalating heat of Chris' battles with Abel, how clever!)
but then the script manipulatively uses this calamity as a way to bring
the film to an emotional boil in its final few minutes, which also very
conveniently allows Abel to cover his dastardly tracks.
And just how convenient is it when a sister character of Abel's -
who shows up and vanishes without ever reappearing again - is brought in to
take his children away for the added convenience of the final moments of
And just how convenient is it when a sister character of Abel's - who shows up and vanishes without ever reappearing again - is brought in to take his children away for the added convenience of the final moments of the film.
were not outlandish enough, we are given one final act on Abel’s part of
pure lunacy where he carelessly uses a cell phone to put in motions the
checkmate of his “destroy
Chris’ life” game. And
then…jeepers…we have a final standoff sequence involving the usual
verbal jabs, fisticuffs, and violent outbursts, where both antagonist and
protagonist have a head to head physical battle that serves to implode the
all of this begs me to ask why wouldn’t the Dockers-clad wuss of an uptight
snob that is Chris not sell his home and relocate upon the first detection
that his neighbor was a full-fledged sociopath hell bent on decimating his
family’s happiness? Beat’s
me. Okay, so the film’s
logic is stunningly shaky, and the script is mechanical and
paint-by-numbers that never once harnesses its initially compelling
premise with any reasonable proficiency. Yet, what’s really, truly wrong with LAKEVIEW TERRACE is
that it’s made by Neil LaBute, a filmmaker with a usually impeccable
eye for painting social unease, stars great actors doing excellent work
(Jackson fits the role to a tee, and Wilson, after searing work in LITTLE
CHILDREN and HARD CANDY, is
emerging as one of our more natural talents), and has Will Smith
producing. I guess what I
don’t understand is how Jackson and Smith saw meaning in LAKEVIEW
TERRACE, considering that it disgracefully presents a warped worldview of
its main African American character.