Hate thy neighbor

Rated 2.0

A couple of years ago, director Neil LaBute gave us Nicolas Cage in a bear suit with his terrible remake of The Wicker Man, one of the very worst movies I’ve ever seen. This from a guy who had a promising start with bitter, dark dramas like Your Friends & Neighbors and In the Company of Men. His latest, Lakeview Terrace looks to be a return from the cinematic nadir that was Cage running around and punching a lot of women in the face.

It doesn’t quite get LaBute back to past glory.

Oh, it’s better than The Wicker Man. Then again, Bio-Dome and Showgirls are better than The Wicker Man. Although, I must admit, I caught Wicker on cable a couple of nights ago and laughed my ass off. The moment when Cage dropkicks Leelee Sobieski is unintentional comic gold.

Lakeview Terrace is definitely LaBute’s most commercial venture yet. Chris and Lisa (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington), a newlywed couple, move into their California dream home, unaware of the domestic horrors that await them. Their new neighbor is a racist holy terror named Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), an L.A. cop who recently lost his wife and doesn’t approve of interracial marriage. When he first talks to Chris, Abel tells the rap-listening supermarket employee that no matter how much he listens to that music, he’s still going to be white.

Abel has high-powered security lights that keep the couple up at night, horrendous manners at a block party, where he verbally obliterates most in attendance, and detestable parenting skills. (He smacks his daughter across the face during an argument in Lisa’s backyard.) Abel is a nasty guy for sure. So nasty that the film can only go in one predictable direction: toward a typical showdown ending. In other words, the film offers few surprises.

Too bad, because the performances aren’t bad and the film looks good. LaBute does an interesting job of capturing the approaching horror of wildfires as an atomic-looking blaze bears down on the main characters’ houses. One shot, where Chris and Lisa observe what looks like a mushroom cloud, is especially memorable.

Jackson is good in this sort of obsessive, rage-filled role. I think the script has provided him with a suburban monster that is beyond belief, the sort of thing that only shows up in the movies. In a film that’s looking for horror based in reality, making the main nemesis full of overblown, impossible cruelty impeded my ability to be scared or uncomfortable. I found myself shaking my head a lot as the film raced towards its standoff ending.

Wilson and Washington are actually provided far more realistic roles that deserved a better movie. Wilson, so good in the suburban drama Little Children, captures the anxiety of a man who can’t protect himself or his spouse. Washington, probably best known for her role in Ray, is especially good in a scene where she attempts to befriend Abel’s daughter (Regine Nehy).

But in the end, it’s all for naught because LaBute and his scriptwriters don’t know where to stop. Not only is Abel a racist, bad cop, he’s also a crappy parent, a failed husband, a snoop, a psychopath, a poor dresser and so much more. I half expected him to sprout wiry wings and fangs, then leap from his roof and swoop down on his neighbors to bite their heads off. Actually … that would’ve been kind of cool.

In the end, Lakeview Terrace is everything you’ve seen before in bad neighbor and dirty cop dramas, with all of the clichés that come with those storylines combined. It wastes the performances of Jackson, Wilson and Washington but, thankfully, none of them don a bear suit and start punching people. I guess that’s semi-good news for LaBute fans.