For a time, Neil LaBute was inked into my Decent Director directory, because he gave us In the Company of Men and Your Friends & Neighbors — which were riveting if imperfect — and because he put Aaron Eckhart on the map. One-time Mormonism and perceived misogyny aside, LaBute came out of the gate looking like my kind of movie-maker — I love a good blunt-force exploration of human dynamics, which in turn makes me a sucker for representations of wincing social moments captured in shows like “Seinfeld,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Extras” and (especially the UK version of) “The Office.” What hones the edges of these shows and LaBute’s earliest films is the fact that it’s so goddamned easy to see why some people find them repugnant and unwatchable; they cut that deep into the flesh of fallible behavior and lacerate us with their nerve. It takes a Type-A cynic to appreciate these sorts of studies — some people recognize themselves or their acquaintances or human nature at large as they recoil from the glare, while other people simply recoil. It’s understandable how such portrayals are anything but entertaining for some viewers, but that shouldn’t exclude them from praise in terms of artistic quality and cultural worth. These are not subtle exercises, by any stretch, but as hard as it is to be a subtle director, it’s even harder to be a heavy-handed one and still succeed. I watched LaBute’s promising sheen corrode to greenish rust since Your Friends & Neighbors; his ensuing work has been, at best, conventional and, at worst, criminal (I still can’t believe The Wicker Man remake is his baby).* Still, I was eager to see LaBute’s latest movie, because even cynics can generate a little hope now and again, especially when the premise is so … well, vintage LaBute.
If I were generous, I could re-christen this new film with cute descriptors like In the Company of Capital M-E-N or Your Fiends & Neighbors, because Lakeview Terrace, though flawed, manages to recapture some of what made LaBute’s first two movies scorch. It’s filled with moments that made me squirm in my seat and gape in horror at my husband, who was squirming even more spastically on my right. Its set-up is manufactured for full, awkward effect: an interracial couple named Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) move into their first home, which happens to be next to the longtime home of an anti-miscegenation bully, a cop named Abel (Samuel L. Jackson) who, unlike Cain, is bound and determined to be his brother’s keeper. Abel patrols the neighborhood in his off-hours, ostensibly to protect his ‘burb but in reality to nose into the lives of those around him. He suspects members of his community of spousal abuse and drug-dealing because Abel automatically suspects the worst of everyone. With a few quick, broad strokes no viewer can possibly miss, LaBute characterizes Abel as a Grade-A bigot who quizzes white men on their ethnic backgrounds and calls them “weeds,” refuses to believe interracial couples can find common ground, and belittles women with names like “sweetheart” if they’re docile and “mouthy bitch” if they challenge his crazy. The structure of escalation comes as no surprise, and in fact our anticipation of the inevitable feud between neighbors is what makes the movie so tense in places; LaBute has a knack for broadcasting the inevitable and pinning us to our spots — like bugs on his cushion — as we watch it gorily unfold.
Just as we suspect from the outset, the first bumps are minor: the new neighbors aggravate each other (sometimes intentionally) with littering, poolside PDAs, and obnoxious security lights. It’s those minor, more subtle annoyances that are the hardest to sit through and make the first part of Lakeview Terrace halfway decent. Anyone who’s ever advanced on a noisy neighbor’s door at three in the morning is forced to relive a particular kind of social anxiety; as someone who’s chastened her fair share of asshole neighbours and hated every minute of it, watching the characters chisel their rage down to false courtesy made me feel exactly the way LaBute wanted me to feel. The man is manipulative — like the movie’s villain, you can’t accuse him of not knowing how to fray his audience’s nerves. Abel’s special brand of inappropriate is fuelled by the Mattsons’ disbelief and by their gradually less controlled reactions to his behavior. As expected, the bad-neighbor situation takes a toll on the couple’s relationship by unearthing the tensions our racist society buried there in the first place; Chris’s hesitation about starting a family turns out to have less to do with fatherhood and more to do with his anxiety about permanently linking himself with a woman he’s Not Supposed To Be With, according to the white and black commentators who people the story (look for Firefly’s Shepherd Book as Lisa’s father, a man struggling with his own share of bigotry).
I appreciated parts of Lakeview Terrace for its portrayal of neighborhood relationships at their most visceral, but the movie relies equally on racial relationships to generate tension and unsettle us. Audiences are likely to see the film’s treatment of the latter in one of two ways. Some viewers will perceive what looks like an underlying fear of black men and, to a degree, of women, in LaBute’s film. If we read characters as emblems and think in facile terms, the story arguably boils down to a screed against “reverse racism” and the heroic struggle of a white man against a black cop with far too much power — call it Gothic Patriarchy of a whole ‘nother color, maybe. I haven’t read other reviews yet but, judging by how In the Company of Men was received, I predict some viewers, like Abel, will think the worst of LaBute, and interpret his representation of certain behaviors as endorsement. In the Company of Men was an indictment against the way men treat women, but its villains were so colorful that it managed to convince some viewers that it was nothing more than an exercise in outlandish misogyny dressed up as art. It’s hard for me to see how people could have read the men in that cautionary tale as anything but vile models of male privilege (and the woman as anything but sympathetic), but art is powerful and it’s been known to overwhelm, especially if the director drops a ball or two, or if he indulges too far.
Other viewers will read Abel in more complex terms. Though I don’t think Lakeview’s script is terribly insightful, I did see Abel more as a victim than villain, which is what I’d like to think LaBute was aiming for. The most pathetic outcome of systematic discrimination is the self-hating “X” who’s been conditioned to mistrust his own kind and consider them Less Than (and if you don’t believe that phenomenon exists, take a closer look at Ann Coulter and Sarah Palin). It seems to me that Abel typifies the self-hating African-American gnawed to dysfunction by white-on-black racism. He may mock white men for listening to hip hop, but he bans the same music in his own house to the point where his fifteen-year-old daughter (Regine Nehy) doesn’t know from Destiny’s Child. He hectors his kids into speaking so-called “white” grammar and tolerates nigger jokes in order to be included by his white-ruled cop clique. He’s driven by an essentialism that was planted in him by the dominant class; he literally sees the world in black and white, and seems trapped in the teeth of contradiction. He’s exactly the subaltern The Man wanted to make of him — fully separate, and so fully aware of his race and his position that he won’t rock the boat by trying for a promotion. Lakeview’s bigot cop could have been played by any A-list scenery-chewer (De Niro and Crowe, for instance, are dialed naturally to “sinister”), but the scary neighbor figure would have then been one-dimensionally evil. By laying on the race issue, LaBute also rejects the villain’s simplicity and, by extension, gives him shape. Whether or not the director succeeds in making Abel pseudo-sympathetic is something individual viewers will have to decide for themselves.
Lakeview is being marketed as a thriller, but it would have been much more interesting if it had dispensed with its formulaic, blow-out ending and its more outrageous scenarios of abuse. It should have sustained itself as a drama of the sort of human behaviors we like to believe are perverse but which are actually pervasive. It kept my interest for the first two-thirds when it was focused on depicting the intimacy of ambivalence between individuals rather than the epic of societal failings — it’s a slow build, and though it’s heavy-handed (Chris isn’t just white, e.g., he’s Berkeley, lacrosse, and Utne Reader White), it also manages to get under our skin in places. LaBute likes to stage sudden turns in mood and explore how people get tangled up in their own weaknesses when they most need to be in control (the party scene, when Chris is humiliated in front of a group of carousing cops, is a lot more layered than it might appear at first glance). Certain moments will gel with certain viewers’ experiences of “neighborly” exchanges, and that gives the movie legs, along with its crisp production design and the believable dynamic between Chris and Lisa. Washington’s work really stands out. Her character is kind to everyone but never gullible (as if she’s seen her share of hatred but worked to overcome it), and though she’s 100% aware of the tension her marriage creates in many rooms, she does her best to make her husband feel included — until he lets her down and paints his situation in life as somehow worse than hers.
I’ve resisted mentioning Crash with grit teeth, because I think it’s over-reaching to compare every post-2004 movie about race relations to Haggis-in-a-box. But since commentators will do it anyway and drag me down with them (damn the lot of you), let the record show that I found more differences than similarities between Crash and LaBute’s film, at least in its quieter first half (the lunkhead metaphor of the encroaching forest fire does undermine my claim, I admit). For what it’s worth, Lakeview doesn’t preach, and it’s more authentically disturbing, and — while not terribly envelop-pushing — it has more in common with LaBute’s early work than Haggis’s output. Lakeview’s a return to type for LaBute, but it’s not good enough to be a return to form. That said, fans of the Wincing Social Moment (on scales much smaller than burning cars and roadside sexual assault) will get their shudder on here and there. — Ranylt Richildis
* Disclaimer: this statement may not be altogether fair, since I haven’t seen 2003’s The Shape of Things.
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on September 20, 2008.)