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Hate Thy Neighbor
on September 22, 2008
Don't think for one second that director Neil LaBute and screenwriters David Loughery and Howard Korder didn't know what they were doing. "Lakeview Terrace" is not merely a disturbing thriller about a black cop that hates his neighbors for being an interracial couple; it's an intelligent, thought-provoking examination of race relations in general, strengthened by its atypical cinematic approach to racism. How different would the reaction to this film be if the roles were reversed, if it told the story of a racist white cop that hated his black neighbor? It would most likely be ignored, because goodness knows we've seen such movies before. "Lakeview Terrace" is refreshing in its willingness to look at things from a largely unseen perspective, which in turn gives the audience more to think about. What a mature turn for LaBute, who completely missed the mark with his God-awful 2006 remake of "The Wicker Man."
It should be noted here that Lakeview Terrace, a suburb of Los Angeles, is where Rodney King was beaten and arrested by the police in the spring of 1991. This is obviously not a coincidence on the filmmaker's part, and neither is the fact that the story is ambiguous in its social commentary. Essentially, LaBute expects up to make up our own minds about who's right and who's wrong. Granted, it seems pretty clear-cut throughout the film; LAPD officer Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) goes to great lengths to destroy the lives of his new next-door neighbors, and he does so because the husband, Chris Mattson (Patrick Wilson), is white and the wife, Lisa (Kerry Washington), is black. Turner begins slowly, dropping a series of subtle hints. His security lights, for example, come on in the middle of the night, and they shine directly into the Mattsons' bedroom. As the film progresses, his hostility escalates into full-blown psychological warfare.
I'm making this sound far too simple. Turner is not merely an evil man; as both a cop and a single father, he's seen his fair share of injustice. To elaborate would give too much away, but rest assured, he has very definite reasons for hating his neighbors, for wanting to not only get them out of Lakeview Terrace, but also to drive a wedge between them. Chris and Lisa are introduced as a lovey-dovey couple happy to be first-time homeowners. But it isn't long before tensions begin mounting. Example: Chris is hesitant to start a family even though Lisa is eager. He has legitimate reasons for wanting to wait; they just moved in, after all, and they need time to settle into their new lives. In spite of this, one can't help but believe it has nothing to do with settling in. While not directly stated, it may, in fact, have to do with raising biracial children. This, as it turns out, is a source of tension between Chris and Lisa's father, Harold (Ron Glass), who never seems to address his son-in-law without a great deal of effort.
Is it possible that Chris and Lisa were never meant to be together? Did they fall in love for all the wrong reasons? Again, none of this directly stated. But considering the way they're now treating each other, it seems very likely that they're rethinking some of the decisions they've made. Lisa thinks their biggest mistake was moving to Lakeview Terrace, not just because their neighbor is unfriendly, but also because she's away from her family and her friends. Chris, determined to prove himself as both a husband and a man, refuses to leave the neighborhood. This paves the way for the film's last twenty minutes, which, on the surface, unfolds in much the same way as an ordinary thriller. Below the surface lies miscommunication, grief, and a lifetime of hard feelings, none of which make it easy to determine who represents good and who represents evil. I say this because, when the climactic final battle between Chris and Turner begins, we immediately see that both men are pointing guns at each other.
The most interesting moments in "Lakeview Terrace" occur within the first ten minutes, when Turner and his children meet at the breakfast table. His young son, Marcus (Jaishon Fisher), comes downstairs wearing a Lakers jersey. Turner wants him to take it off because it displays the number twenty-four, which is Kobe Bryant's number. He's made it abundantly clear that from now on, they're giving all their support to Shaq. Why? Is it because of Bryant's highly publicized extramarital affair? Immediately afterwards, he scolds his fifteen-year-old daughter, Celia (Regine Nehy), for not using correct English. Is he encouraging his children to be the best they can be, or is he controlling them because improper speech reminds him of someone he hates?
While these questions are never answered, they still add a tremendous amount of depth to the story, solidifying Turner as a man holding a grudge against the world. I have no doubt that some audiences will see things from his point of view; when life hurts you a few too many times, hatred is completely understandable. On the same token, I'm sure that many will have no sympathy for him at all. Some will see him as a heartless monster preying on an innocent couple. Both arguments are valid. You should take them into consideration when watching "Lakeview Terrace," a taut, suspenseful human drama that will make you uncomfortable no matter what side you take. My hope is that it will start a line of communication. If it doesn't lead to peace, then maybe it will lead to an understanding. Of all the things noticeably absent from "Lakeview Terrace," a line of communication is the most important.