Where that Oscar-winning movie offered what was ultimately a cinematic kumbaya concerning the future of race relations in America, this thriller offers a harder-edged, bleaker appraisal.
And I can't say I'm especially surprised by that perspective, given LaBute's impressive history as a director. He's a relentless agitator and a deliberate provocateur, a talent who consistently demands that his audience countenance the face in the mirror.
LaBute's In The Company of Men (1995), for instance, remains a scathing indictment of the male-dominated business-world in the immediate post-Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas Age. It's a blistering look at men behaving badly, and it must rank as one of the best independent films of the Clinton Era.
The director's Your Friends And Neighbors (1997) stands out as an even more pointed examination of American sexual mores, male and female, and it is one of my personal all-time favorite films...especially when I'm feeling cynical about human nature.
Jason Patric's virtuoso scene in a sauna -- describing his "best sexual encounter ever" -- is truly one of the most memorable, horrifying and riveting monologues delivered in American film - period - during the 1990s. My jaw drops at the mere thought of it, as the memory awakens. And also at the fact that a smart, educated woman in the film, played by Amy Brenneman, abandons her mostly decent -- if perpetually unexciting husband (Aaron Eckhart) -- for the shallow thrill of intercourse with Patric's sociopath. Like most of LaBute's work, Your Friends and Neighbors is brutally, irrevocably honest.
Some might even call it merciless.
Of course, LaBute is also the talent responsible for the dreadful remake of The Wicker Man (2006), a misguided attempt to slather sexual politics onto a beloved genre property that already focused on something intriguing: competing religious sensibilities and belief systems. The remake was a misstep. And with Nicolas Cage outrageously hamming it up in the lead role ("Step Away From The Bike!"), a colossal one at that.
Fortunately LaBute finds redemption in Lakeview Terrace, a disturbing drama that wades into deeper psychological territory than the film's commercials suggested. Those trailers made the movie look like Fatal Attraction or Unlawful Entry, with Samuel L. Jackson in the Glenn Close or Ray Liotta role. Those ads ultimately do the movie no justice, however, because LaBute is much more interested in the characters and their perspectives than in crafting a crowd-pleasing, jump-scare machine. The film is tense and thrilling to be certain, but not in the expected way of a mindless blockbuster.
And -- as is often the case in his oeuvre -- LaBute's focused on some moral issues here that most movie makers simply won't touch. Or rather they won't do so in anything approaching an intellectually rigorous fashion. But give LaBute credit: he doesn't shy away from the uncomfortable. Even when we might -- occasionally -- wish he would. This movie is not for the meek, or for those just looking for an "easy" roller coaster ride.
Specifically, LaBute's Lakeview Terrace dramatizes the story of a world-weary black cop, Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson). He's a twenty-year veteran of L.A.'s mean streets and a widower to boot, one who lives in an upscale gated community in Los Angeles. Abel's wife died following a car accident a few years ago, and now he lives his life in the metaphorical pose of a pugilist...in a continuous, coiled rage.
Because Abel finds the vicissitudes of life so chaotic, he has attempted to impose order upon them. He is fastidious, over-controlling, obsessive and imperious. Raising two adolescent children alone, Abel imposes draconian rules upon them so he can "protect them" from a world that he views as destructive, racist and unsafe. Security lights blanket Abel's home; his lawn is immaculately trimmed...in perfect order. Abel is also a committed Republican. One who doesn't like "freeloaders."
Then one day, a Prius-driving white Democrat named Chris (Patrick Wilson) moves in next door to Abel. He's married to a beautiful young black woman, Lisa (Kerry Washington), a fact that immediately disturbs Abel. Every day -- while coming home from his job -- Chris listens to rap music in his hybrid and rebelliously(!) smokes "organic" cigarettes. But when Abel pulls Chris over one night, the black cop informs the white man that even if he listens to rap all night, he's never going to be black. Chris, who suffers from white liberal guilt, -- not to mention a serious inferiority complex -- tolerates Abel's nasty jibes. For far too long.
Just as Abel's career and circumstance have conditioned him to anger and confrontation; Chris's situation and upbringing have conditioned him...to be meek. A product of political-correctness, Chris permits society to dictate what kind of car he should drive, whether he should smoke cigarettes, and how he should relate to black men, even. Chris is so cowed by white liberal guilt, in fact, that he permits Abel to bully and bully him. Abel isn't the first to do so, either. "I am constantly taking shit from black guys about our relationship," he tells Lisa angrily.
Chris's agenda? "Can't we all just get along?" he pleads to Abel, meekly. Naturally, Abel shoots down that request, and accuses Chris of racism for bringing up Rodney King.
Because Abel - for all his admirable qualities as a policeman and a single parent - is a racist. He judges Chris not by the content of his character, but by the color of his skin. So Abel makes it his mission in life to make Chris miserable. Oh, and Abel has reserved some anger for Lisa too. After all, she's something of a race traitor in his eyes. The mere sight of Lisa with a white man stirs up resentment in Abel. Primarily because Abel has some questions about the fact that his wife was in the car with a white man when her accident occurred...
So basically, Lakeview Terrace serves as a head-on collision between a bully who fully understands how to use race to his advantage; and a coward who is afraid of his anger; afraid that if he expresses it, society will judge him a racist.
On a much deeper level, LaBute's film concerns the myriad ways that we all seem to misplace our feelings of anger. Abel blames Chris and Lisa for his life's woes...instead of examining his own behavior. And oppositely, Chris swallows his anger, even when it is entirely appropriate...and justified. As for Lisa, she's a rich little Daddy's girl, and when she doesn't get her way, she channels her anger into a cruel manipulation of Chris.
LaBute opens Lakeview Terrace with flash cut, long-shot views of the upper-class gated community, as if he's showing us the setting for an Old-West showdown, or setting the battlefield in a horror movie. And throughout the film, the director (working from a terrific script by David Loughery) determinedly contrasts the character fireworks with encroaching wildfires.
Those wildfires grow more severe - and closer - as Chris and Abel lock horns. When the film's denouement finally arrives, so do those fires: burning up everything; just like Abel's blazing rage. Lakeview Terrace also makes numerous references to the "heat" being ratcheted up in relationship to these oppositional neighbors. Chris and Lisa's air conditioning breaks down (or did Abel take it out?), for instance. Tempers flare, the heat rises, and someone attempts murder...
Lakeview Terrace is endlessly fascinating and again, provocative, in the ways that every character relationship appears dominated by issues of anger and control. Lisa's father (Ron Glass) doesn't seem to have much use for Chris; a fact Chris attributes (rightly or wrongly, we're not sure...) to skin color. And Lisa and Chris constantly battle for the superior position in their marital relationship. So much so that Lisa -- who wants children -- goes off her birth control pills without informing Chris. And then there's Abel's daughter, chafing under his restrictions and ready to break out...inappropriately...if understandably. Race is more than the underlying subtext of the film, it's the explosive spark that seems to heighten every dynamic: the feelings of inferiority on Chris's part; Abel's rage; Lisa's sense of entitlement, and so on. And yet nobody here is a two-dimensional character or a mouthpiece for a simple agenda. Abel does terrible, terrible things and yet we are drawn to him. He's strong He tries to be a good cop and a good father. It's just that his barometer is off. He doesn't realize how "over the line" he is.
As the film ends, the slow-to-take-action Chris finally makes a stand. He finally fights back in a most dynamic way, and you get the sense that he is summoning all of his will to get past years of bland white-bread, political-correct indoctrination to do it.
This may not be precisely the "brave new world" Chris envisioned or hoped for before encountering the Biblically-named Abel, but then sometimes the hatreds of the past have to die out -- or be aggressively stamped out -- before we can all get together and sing our wonderful kumbayas.
They said those wildfires were "under control," but Chris learns in Lakeview Terrace that they weren't. That as a participant in his own life, he must put them out...or be consumed himself.