This post contains a review of the movie “Lakeview Terrace” (2008), starring Samuel Jackson. The post contains plot spoilers. I recommend the movie, with some reservations. It would be better to have seen the movie than to read this post before watching the movie.
The movie, in my judgment, is first about race, second about the American suburbs, and only in a tertiary way to be considered a thriller. It’s a script about some interesting sociological phenomena that has been wedged into a thriller format. Considered as a commercial American thriller, it is perhaps slightly above-average in quality, which is to say not very good, because not entirely credible in all of its plot elements, mainly whether the most extreme actions of the characters are credible. But the sociological aspects of the movie, and the portrayal of the central character by Jackson, rescue the film. The movie has some things to say about race in America, and about suburban life, at the time at which it was made that are not merely platitudinous.
Opinion about the movie seems to have diverged greatly. Based upon a glance at Movie Review Query Engine, it would appear that most reviewers found the movie to be a rather pedestrian thriller, but it had its defenders. Roger Ebert, a notoriously easy grader, gave it 4/4. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that Anthony Lane gives the movie a mainly positive review in “The New Yorker,” saying that the first hour, and especially Jackson’s performance, are close to riveting and that the action denoument of the last 45 minutes is less than entirely convincing.
One of the reasons I liked this movie, perhaps the main reason, is that Jackson’s character reminds me very much or a next-door neighbor my family had in San Francisco when I was an adolescent, a hard-working blue-collar man who was very strict with his children and probably had rather conservative attitudes regarding virtually everything. I was invited to dinner at their house a few times, and it was always a tense experience. One never knew what might arouse the wrath of the patriarch, who was very imposing physically, tall, wiry, and very strong. He was not a man prone to mirth. Unlike Abel, as played by Jackson, though, the man I knew had married a white woman, and the couple had four children. When I later moved away for college, I heard that they had divorced amid rumors of domestic violence. Abel, a career street cop in Los Angeles, now a sergeant as he approaches retirement, is a particular kind of “race man,” though, who is offended by intermarriage. This seems very credible to me.
Abel, it transpires, has been thrust over the edge by the fact that his wife was killed in an auto crash three years ago. Due to the accident, as we only learn well over half the way through the movie, Abel learns that she was probably having an affair with her white boss, who was driving at the time of the accident. The script’s implicit premise is that Abel has been tormented by the betrayal and by the fact that his wife would have betrayed him with a white man. The rage that this apparently inspires also seems quite credible to this viewer. One also has the impression that Abel could not have been easy to live with at any stage, that he has always had a good deal of racial resentment that might have been difficult for his wife to endure. The wife had sought consolation from someone less tormented, less wound-up, a white man.
The plot hinges upon the fact that a young biracial couple has moved into a house next to Abel’s in a pleasant but probably remote suburb of Los Angeles. The movie’s opening sequence is clever, in that both the viewer and Abel probably mistakenly assume that a distinguished older black man who arrives with the couple is in fact the husband, that we are looking at a May-December couple. But we are quickly disabused of this assumption, as it turns out that the young white man driving a rental moving van is in fact the husband, and the older man is the young wife’s father. It later transpires that the father is a successful attorney in Oakland. The interesting part of the young couple’s marriage is that the husband, who went to U.C. Berkeley on a lacrosse scholarship, has married up. The young husband is apparently a rather uncomplicated jock now making his way in the business world as a mid-level executive for a supermarket chain. His wife apparently works in computer animation or clothing design, it is not entirely clear, but she seems to have had more money than her spouse, as is clear from the fact that her father had wanted to help the young couple buy a more desirable house than the one they have bought, which is a 3-bedroom suburban home with a swimming pool at the end of a cul-de-sac. Unfortunately, they have moved nextdoor to a racially obsessed and bereaved psychotic policeman.
A feature of the plot that goes unremarked in the reviews I have read is the prominent part played by a huge, mostly white drug dealer/police informant. In an early scene, Abel rousts his informant, who plies his trade in South Central LA at Abel’s suffrance, for information. We learn in this scene that Abel is offended by the drug dealer’s assimilation to black street culture and by his overall racial ambiguity. The drug dealer, for his part, cannot understand why Abel is so obsessed with biological race as a marker.
In a later scene, Abel, contrary to expectation, agrees to host a bachelor party for a young police colleague, but he has done so only to torment the young couple nextdoor with noise. But the scene is an interesting one, revealing the police to be as one imagines professional athletes to be when they congregate socially, somewhat contemptuous of the general public and of the law, as well as of women.
Another character in the movie is the suburban neighborhood itself, Lakeview Terrace. The movie well conveys the sense of pride Abel takes in his home, a pride which has unfortunately veered into obsessive paranoia, as evidenced by the high-powered security lighting he has installed. Abel can be seen watering the plants in front of his house. He patrols his cul-de-sac street at night in his own private “Neighborhood Watch.” Some Asian neighbors host a party for the neighborhood.
An aspect of the plot which is not entirely believable is that the young biracial couple who move into the neighborhood are described as having purchased a “starter home” and have refused financial assistance from the wife’s parents. Where did they get enough money to purchase this house, which must have cost at least $800,000?
The neighborhood has been built on a hillside and is subject to wildfires. All too predictably, a wildfire occurs and threatens the neighborhood, which has to be evacuated, in the movie’s concluding scenes. There is here a somewhat unhappy confluence of implications about development policy and sprawl and the requirements of increasing the suspense and sense of impending doom in the concluding scenes of a suspense film. These scenes might have been more powerful if the wildfire had been depicted as having threatened Lakeview Terrace without actually reaching it, if it had appeared in TV footage of a similar neighborhood just across the valley, for example. As things stand, there is just too much contrivance and coincidence.
The movie builds to a happy resolution, as Abel meets his deserved end and the young biracial couple ride off into a presumably happier day. I was greatly pleased when Abel is finally punished for his racially motivated extravagances. The message seems to be that Abel had endured racial indignities all his life and had developed elaborate coping mechanisms, a very tough carapace. That he should have done so to no purpose, because race is no longer deemed to be terribly important in the new society that is dawning, is more than he can bear. Abel’s defenses were shattered when his wife died under circumstances that were emasculating for him, and his psychological crisis is brought to the breaking point by the arrival of the insouciant and privileged young biracial couple next door. I have known this man. He is not someone who exists only in the minds of the script’s writers.