Though Chris’ major at the super-liberal Berkeley goes unstated, it can be assumed, based on Chris’ consistency with the cliché, that it was probably Anti-American Atheistic-Marxist Theory with a minor in Pretentious French References and, as such, if Chris were able to jump off the screen and witness the movie world of Lakeview Terrace in which he exists, it’s certain he would analyze it through the prism of French social theorist, Michel Foucault.
That’s because Foucault is the go-to guy to pretentiously quote and, furthermore, he was largely concerned with power relations, and Lakeview Terrace’s director, Neil LaBute (Nurse Betty, In the Company of Men), seems downright obsessed with them. Power dynamics—along race and gender lines and psycho-sexual ones, too, between parent and child, husband and wife, father-in-law and son-in-law, and cop and citizen—are overtly present in nearly every scene. And, interestingly, the power interactions in these scenes often run counter to their prototypical direction. Chris, it turns out, is an innocent white man surrounded by oppression from black characters, including his wife. (This is, perhaps, a leitmotiv for LaBute. His 1997 film, In the Company of Men, was about two men seeking vengeance for their gender, holding, as they did, the belief that women had taken over society.)
Set against the backdrop of a Los Angeles aflame in one of those wildfires that regularly ravage its valleys, the setup for Lakeview Terrace is simple: Chris and his wife, Lisa (Kerry Washington) move to pretty Lakeview Terrace and their neighbor, a single father and police officer, Abel Turner (Samuel L Jackson, black, if you notice such things), takes an instant disliking to them, their racial configuration, especially. What begins as a dispute over cigarette butts and security lights rapidly escalates into something much more explosive. The Mattsons can’t exactly complain to the police either, for, as Abel helpfully points out, he is the police.
As Chris, washing down his organic arugula salad with a nice chardonnay, might quote from Foucault, “Power is not an institution, and not a structure; neither is it a certain strength we are endowed with; it is the name that one attributes to a complex strategical situation in a particular society.” And poor privileged Chris is in quite a situation, indeed. He might also look toward turn-of-the-century English author GK Chesterton who said,“The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.”
The Hollywood treatment of LA as a hotbed of ubiquitous racial tension (see Crash, Street Kings et al) has grown increasingly wearisome and Lakeview Terrace possesses some of the same weakness in character motivation, moments of sluggish relationship drama, and an easy and cheesy dénouement found in other films. But with a highly empathetic protagonist, well-developed characters and terrific acting by both Wilson and, particularly, Jackson (who restrains his trademark crazy-eyes), it’s a surprisingly effective thriller as well as a fresh and interesting take on issues of race and power.
Directed by Neil LaBute
Written by David Loughery and Howard Korder
With Samuel L Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Ron Glass and Justin Chambers
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14
110 min., PG-13