In almost every way, Lakeview Terrace is a pretty typical Sam Jackson movie. He's intense. He's furious. He's armed like an octopus. His performance is royale -- with cheese.
But this time, Jackson is a police officer, not a Jheri-curled hit man. And his director is Neil LaBute, the brutalist playwright/filmmaker (Your Friends and Neighbors), hiring himself out for a Hollywood hack job.
I mean that as a compliment, up to a point. For about 90 minutes, before it plummets into one of those cowardly endings so common in movies that lose their nerve, it's as tight, absorbing and trenchant as a commercial thriller can get. LaBute receives no screen credit for the script -- two people worked on it separately, one rewriting the other -- but you can hear LaBute's tart insights in some of the lines.
He directs his actors to streamlined performances: Patrick Wilson, as the object of Jackson's ire, is an expert at playing Yuppie stiffs, but Jackson's steel-edged character seems to focus Wilson even more, and the two together are very entertaining.
Lakeview Terrace takes place in an upscale, mixed-race Los Angeles neighborhood far from where Abel Turner (Jackson), a 28-year veteran of the LAPD, busts heads. He wants it that way, both to escape South Central, where he grew up, and to insulate his two kids from the world of drugs, hip hop and loose talk. (He corrects every grammatical mistake they make.) He's a widower of three years, but that's not why he's so angry. It's clear from what people say that he's always been like that.
His partner is Latino, his neighbors are Asian, and he would probably have no issue with his new white neighbor, Chris Mattson (Wilson), except that Chris' wife, Lisa (Kerry Washington), is black. This seems to bother him more than it should, given what we know about him for most of the movie. Of course, there's a "reason," an "explanation," and we learn it just before (or just so) everything can unravel and explode.
Before it does, though, Lakeview Terrace asks us to consider the dilemma of a man like Abel. He knows the dangers his kids face out there. He's spent his career arresting them. What's a father to do? How long can he go before his reasonable fear turns into a righteous and dangerous anger? He doesn't like the changing world, and a mixed-race couple represents it. He doesn't want his children -- especially his teen-age daughter -- getting any ideas.
In one of many smart and poignant scenes, Lisa and Abel's 15-year-old daughter, who's interested in a white boy at school, share a little girl talk after a swim (unauthorized by dad) in the Mattson pool. How much should she "like" a boy before she goes out with him? She has no mom to tell her. The Mattsons' marriage is often just as frank: Lisa's imposing lawyer-father doesn't approve of their union, and the friction he foments joins them in bed. A few of their spats are tense, but their reconciliations happen naturally. It's a surprisingly realistic portrait of a marriage complicated by prejudices on both sides.
All of that would have been enough for a thoughtful little movie about race and urban culture without Abel also being a rogue cop. Chris listens to hip hop, which doubly angers his neighbor, and when Chris asks why they can't just get along, Abel snaps back: "Not Rodney King. Not the race card." (Close your eyes and hear Jackson saying it.) LaBute makes movies about people who are uncomfortable in their own skins, and Lakeview Terrace makes his metaphor literal. So, too, does the wildfire creeping up the hills toward the homes of the characters, as they struggle with their fires inside.