The difference between a provocateur and a filmmaker is that a filmmaker’s movies are about something, while a provocateur’s movies push buttons to hide just how little content they really have. Neil LaBute’s career has been that of a provocateur, but none of his movies have been more hollow than Lakeview Terrace, a generic thriller coasting off the wake of Crash and pretending to be something more than it really is.
Race is front and center, but as in Crash it’s a narrative devoid of substance. The one and only thing that makes Lakeview Terrace compelling is Samuel L. Jackson, as always giving his 120 percent as the movie’s Godzilla, the explosive mixture of racial and political tropes, Black, Conservative, LAPD Officer, and emotionally as much of a mess as he is politically. The interracial yuppie couple that moves next door to him may be the hero and heroine on paper and their relationship is meant to be transgressive, but they and even the fires that approach the neighborhood pale in comparison to Jackson’s Abel Turner, part fanatic, part son of a bitch and utterly real.
The problem with Lakeview Terrace is that besides Samuel L. Jackson proving that he can bring to life any character on a script page, the movie has nothing going for it. The script mentions race a lot, but the sum total of those mentions is to suggest that it’s a troubled and complicated subject. Neil LaBute throws in his share of clever visual references to race which add up to nothing more than clever visual references that say nothing. Given free rein, LaBute might have produced something more shocking than the generic thriller format for Lakeview Terrace allows, but there is no reason to believe that it would have worked any better.
Lakeview Terrace’s big selling point is race, but subtract the racial button pushing and you have virtually the same movie but without the camouflage of significance. If all its racial profundity has a message, it’s that racial roles aren’t so simple and yet they are a part of our society, which is the kind of wisdom you end up with from an afterschool special. Over 15 years after the LA Riots, Hollywood continues to try and make movies about racial tensions and the LAPD without actually having anything to say about the subject, and as a sign of Lakeview Terrace’s predictability, Rodney King and the riots themselves are referenced barely halfway through the movie. Bogged down by cliches and featuring a struggle between bland and mean, Lakeview Terrace’s real color is vanilla, a generic thriller trying to pretend to be something it’s not.