Watching Neil LaBute’s suburban crime thriller ten years on, one can’t help but ask one crucial question: why is it called Terrace when the action clearly takes place on a cul-de-sac?
(The answer is that Lakeview Terrace is a suburban district in the north east quadrant of the San Fernando Valley region of the City of Los Angeles. However, let’s not let facts get in the way of a good joke.)
Dodgy place-naming aside, Lakeview Terrace (2008) remains entertaining and thought-provoking, although it is also more problematic than memory serves. It still says some interesting things about racism, and it has what I would argue is the most fascinating use of suburban warfare seen since Home Alone (1990), but its uncomfortably white-guy centric storytelling now doesn’t sit quite so well. Perhaps that was LaBute’s way of suggesting that things are not as straightforward as they seem, or perhaps ten years of seeing white cops shooting black teenagers in America has changed how I view popular media. Perhaps both.
Chris (Patrick Wilson) and Lisa Mattson (Kerry Washington) have just bought a home in a wealthy Los Angeles community, much to the dismay of their new neighbour, police officer and widower Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). Already embittered when discovers he is living next to an interracial couple, he becomes enraged when he discovers his children spying upon Chris and Lisa having sex in their swimming pool. Determined to force them to move, Abel starts harassing the Mattsons, turning to more and more violent measures to scare them away from the neighbourhood including shining floodlights into their bedroom at night and holding raucous parties into the early hours. This culminates in hiring a criminal gang member to trash their house. However, returning home early from a party, Lisa encounters the man and is “rescued” in the nick of time by Abel who shoots him dead in order to save himself.
After this incident it seems as though Abel has realised the recklessness of his previous actions: however, during an emergency evacuation from the neighbourhood due to encroaching wildfires, Chris discovers the dead gang member’s misplaced phone which still has Abel’s number on it. This leads to a stand-off between Chris and Abel that is only concluded when the police arrive. Chris provokes Abel to brandish his gun with the suggestion that his wife slept with a white man just before her death, and the police kill Abel with a round of bullets.
Writing his resoundingly positive review of Lakeview Terrace upon its original release, Roger Ebert advised his readers to “take a step back”:
“What if all the races were switched? If the neighbor were white, the husband next door black, his wife white? Same script. It would be the story of a sociopathic white racist. It might be interesting, but it would have trouble getting made. […] Is this movie racist for making the villain black or would it be equally racist by making the villain white? Well? What’s your answer?”
With these questions Ebert may have been looking to provoke thought rather than implying such a film could be made, but either way the idea of switching the race yet somehow keeping the same script rings hollow, and would arguably not be possible. What becomes clear in a rewatch is that the film hinges – whether for better or worse – on its race relations. While Abel’s actions are by no means excusable, it’s hard not to empathise with an African American man who has endured decades of systemic racism. Peter Bradshaw, writing his review for The Guardian, made a salient point, however, when he suggested that “LaBute’s movie makes an error, I think, in finally offering a pat explanation for Abel’s attitude to his neighbours: it would have been better to have left it unexplained, or rather left it explained merely by the general, toxic stew of race and class.” Despite this misstep, Abel still elicits a considerable amount of humanity thanks to the wider racial context of the film.
In comparison, Chris is harder to like this time around; he works for a food conglomerate which claims to be have a “pretty strong environmental agenda,” while also regularly disposing of his cigarette butts over the fence in his neighbour’s yard. It wouldn’t be fair to blame him for Abel’s antagonism but his entitled attitude is part of the wider racial inequalities in society. It’s also a little grating to hear Chris complain to Lisa about how he is “constantly taking shit from black guys about our relationship.”
While in these exchanges we can see that LaBute is demonstrating Chris’s inability to see beyond his own white guy problems, I would argue that Chris still is given too much slack. In particular, the one crucial hint we get into Lisa’s own experience as a black woman in America – her response to Chris that he has “no idea” what it’s like “being on the front lines all the time” – doesn’t do enough to address the imbalance in screen time given to the two of them.
It’s also difficult not to contextualise Lakeview Terrace in the current climate of social justice movements, particularly Black Lives Matter. In some ways the film comes across as naive in the contemporary context of cops and racism in America. It’s certainly interesting seeing Jackson play a black police officer plagued by internalised oppression, but it’s a symptom of American racism rather than an underlying cause.
On the other hand, it’s hard to say such themes are being tackled any more successfully today, with two recent blockbusters, Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri (2017) and Blackkklansman (2018) choosing to focus on one bad egg in the local police department rather than facing wider corruption head-on. Either way, the final shootout between Abel and Chris makes for particularly uncomfortable viewing, considering how quickly the cops are to side with Chris. While the audience knows Chris is in the right here, is there really enough evidence for the *police* to know this too? The final image of Abel as Jesus on the cross appears to imply otherwise.
While Lakeview is still wholly watchable and enjoyable, there are some things that perhaps don’t gel as well as would be hoped. For one, the cops’ sudden and final shift of allegiance from Abel to Chris somewhat highlights the unlikelihood of Abel wielding a significant amount of power and influence in the first place. Secondly, if it were to be remade today, one wonders whether it would be better served if directed and/or written by a person of colour (Conversely, since Lakeview was produced by two African American men – Will Smith and James Lassiter – perhaps it’s about time for this white girl to shut up on issues of authorship). Overall, however, Lakeview Terrace is certainly worthy of a rewatch. Although it feels somewhat dated, particularly in its pre-crash economics, perhaps the Californian wildfires which drive Lakeview’s residents from their homes are a sign of the times ahead.