It’s another sunny morning in Los Angeles. Marcus (Jaishon Fisher) slides into his chair at the breakfast table, imagining it’ll be a brief stop on his way to the school bus. But no. His father, Abel (Samuel L. Jackson), eyes him skeptically. He gestures toward Marcus’ choice of basketball jerseys, a bright yellow Lakers 24. “We are not advertising that guy,” grumbles dad. “We talked about this. We made the jump to Shaq.”
As Marcus, head hanging, shuffles off to his bedroom to change, his 15-year-old sister Celia (Regine Nehy) is left alone at the table with Abel. He grabs at the pink iPod she’s wearing and reminds her of the agreement they had regarding her use of it at the table. It’s one too many times, he snarls, “Three strikes, you’re out,” as if she’s one of the gangsta posers whom Abel, an LAPD officer, routinely roughs up during his workday.
So far, so standard tough cop. But as it soon as becomes clear in Lakeview Terrace, Abel is not just any angry black man. He is brutally and even surreally angry, a figure born of fantasies and fears, “America’s Nightmare” writ extra large. In other words, he’s ideal material for Neil LaBute.
Though LaBute usually directs his own scripts, this one, by David Loughery and Howard Korder, digs into the same anxieties explored in Your Friends & Neighbors and especially Nurse Betty. That is, the film sets up a basic opposition — between Abel and the world, or, more specifically, Abel and his new white neighbor, Chris (Patrick Wilson) — in order to break down how they serve as mirror images of one another, each prone to act out his masculine insecurity in the same aggressive, irrational ways. No matter that the film offers seeming explanations for their excesses, as each is revealed as damaged by some formulaic trauma that makes it too easy for him to tip over into outright paranoia and lunacy. And no matter that each combatant is righteous in his own way, determined to remake at least his little piece of the world so it reflects his raging order. Both are soon reduced to lunacy and the movie to preposterousness.
But for all the generic turmoil — the shots fired, the women abused, the LAPD trashed — LaBute’s film maintains a nasty and often intelligent interest in the cultural underpinnings of its actionated nonsense. And it complicates this interest by changing perspectives, aligning you with men whose views are increasingly narrow, not to mention insecure and wrongheaded. Consider Abel’s initial impression of Chris, whom he mistakes for a mover. Peeping through his window at the house next door, Abel sees Lisa (Kerry Washington) and a seeming partner, Harold (Ron Glass), on whose arm she leans as they survey the backyard and pool. Abel’s assumption is almost instantly undone, however, when he spots the hunky guy who’s been toting boxes off the U-Haul lean in for a tender, newly-weddish kiss with Lisa. Whoa! Abel pulls back from his peeping spot, visibly repulsed.
Soon after, Abel begins harassing his new neighbors, shining his high-wattage security lights on their bedroom window all night, pausing during his habitual twilight block patrol to catch Chris smoking a cigarette in his Prius, parked in his own driveway. Embarrassed and trying to be friendly toward this figure looming in his car window, Chris admits he’s hiding his bad habit from his wife. While such deception plainly irks Abel, he’s even more annoyed by the fact that Chris is also blasting rap music on his radio. Pulling up from his lean into the window, Abel glowers: “You can listen to that noise all night long. When you wake up in the morning, you’re still gonna be white.”
The camera remains in the car with Chris as Abel walks away, aligning you now with the white guy, unnerved. This is no ordinary cop, the framing suggests. And now Chris is set against him. As they engage in several other brief conversations — usually as Chris endeavors to redraw the terms, to make nice with Abel — it becomes increasingly clear that Abel resents every breath Chris takes, as well as the night he and Lisa make love in their pool (so Abel’s kids can see from their window). When Abel essentially flat-out says Chris shouldn’t be living in “my neighborhood,” the younger man (blameworthy in Abel’s mind for his lacrosse scholarship to Berkeley as well as the miscegenation he’s practicing) makes an emotional jump, collapsing Abel onto his disapproving father-in-law.
Again, the movie can’t seem to help itself. Despite Lisa’s efforts to calm her husband, Lakeview Terrace takes Chris’ obviously overwrought perspective, partly by implying Harold’s disapproval of the marriage (“When are you going to have children?” becomes an incredibly hostile question) and mostly by focusing on Abel’s hysteria. When Celia asks Lisa for boy advice (specifically, concerning her crush on a white boy, which Lisa advises hr to be sure of, because interracial romance is “hard”), Abel shows up just in time to see his daughter dancing in her poolside-appropriate swimwear. When Celia accuses him of “messing with my life,” Abel slaps her so hard she falls down, compounding Lisa’s outrage at his own childishness (he’s stripped to his boxers to make a point about Celia’s “parading around in [her] underwear”).
Lisa is the film’s most dislocated figure, caught between an overbearing father and a frenzied husband. If Chris’ escalation is premised on his resentment of Harold and Abel’s on his unresolved anger at his dead wife (again, a story revealed by away of “explaining” his violence), Lisa’s apparent decision to lie to Chris (concerning birth control) comes pretty much out of the blue. Her apparent betrayal certainly fuels Chris’ fury, such that he spirals into a sense of utter isolation, a me-against-the-world self-image that rivals Abel’s. This fissure in the marriage also exposes their own lingering race “issues.” The film doesn’t provide much detail, but does sketch familiar tensions. He declares, “I am constantly taking shit from black guys about our relationship. It just gets exhausting being on the front lines all the time,” inspiring her exasperated rejoinder, “You have no idea.” Clearly, they need to talk this out, but Abel’s increasingly invasive actions don’t give them much time. And so they learn about one another’s resentments and fears while also trying to stay alive.
The dire context for their efforts is made literal by the wildfires that appear in the background, on TV news reports, in smoky haze over the horizon, and creeping closer and closer, choppers sounding over the San Fernando Valley. As the fires at last threaten their embattled home and the couple is instructed to evacuate or be burned, it seems that Chris’ perspective has consumed the movie. As he looks out away from his house — toward the smoke, the hellish flames, and Abel spraying a hose over his own rooftop — Chris now sees a universe owned and ordained by a very scary black man. It’s a weird and entirely telling image, Chris’ fear and resentment made uncannily concrete.