Oh, to live to see such a rarity: a horror movie for grownups! No mad slashers who watched as children as their babysitters were viciously murdered. No psychopath who likes to play torture games. No creative carving up of frail human bodies. Just the plausible pettiness of human nastiness slowly, inexorably building to a tragedy of suburban proportions.
Ah, it’s an awkwardness we’re all familiar with: moving day. Meeting the new neighbors and trying to get off on the right foot, knowing that you’re stuck living next to these people for what’ll feel like forever if you can’t make it work. So it goes for Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson [Evening, Running with Scissors] and Kerry Washington [Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, I Think I Love My Wife]), obviously not newlyweds but moving into their first mortgage. They’re excited: it’s a beautiful house in a beautiful neighborhood in the hills of Los Angeles. It’s literally a dream come true.
The guy already living next door? Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson: Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Jumper) is a cop, and a hardass as a man and as a father: he’s got lots and lots of rules for his kids, teen Celia (Regine Nehy) and preteen Marcus (Jaishon Fisher). Mom is gone, so it’s just the three of them. Some of Abel’s rules — like the one about which basketball jersey Marcus may wear to school — seem like a little bit of a joke at first. But looking back later, we see that as just the tip of the iceberg of Abel’s authoritarianism.
The horrors of Lakeview Terrace are those of the everyday stripe, like Abel’s barely subsumed anger, and the tyranny of suburbia, and our own unspoken expectations, and the discomforts of racism that linger even in situations when that ugliness may not actually be present. Director Neil LaBute (The Wicker Man, Possession), working from a script by David Loughery and Howard Korder, plays a little bit with expectations about race right as he opens this tidy little package of a movie, as black Abel watches his new black neighbors — a young woman and an older man — move in, with the help of the white mover driving the U-Haul. If you’ve seen the ads and trailers for Terrace, you’re not fooled: you already know the young white man is Chris, the husband (the older black man, played by Ron Glass [Serenity], is Lisa’s father). But clever of LaBute to cast such talented yet relative unknowns as Wilson and Washington as his new homeowners: those moviegoers not in the know will be as fooled as Abel, perhaps, and will get the first of many shakeups just then.
Clever of LaBute, too, for casting Wilson and Washington, because these two are on the verge of stardom, if they play their games right. They’re extraordinary screen presences separately — and have been whether headlining smaller indies or in lower-profile roles in big films before — but together sear with amazing chemistry. It’s nice, and so rare, to see a couple on film that you can really believe is deeply in love.
The ruination of their happiness is in the offing, of course: such love cannot stand, or there’d be no movie. At first it’s sly, subtle comments about who belongs where and who belongs with whom, “jokes” about what makes a person black or white, and minor, seemingly incidental, accidental harrassment. All from Abel, of course, and, at first, directed mostly at Chris, who elects himself ambassador to the land of next-door. It’s the kind of stuff that’s so understated that a sensitive guy like Chris can hardly complain about it, not to Abel’s face, at least, because he knows he’d be the one coming off as petty. The frustration of Chris’s predicament is palpable, partly because we all know what it means to be in that situation, and partly because Wilson is so remarkable astute an actor that he lets us see Chris’s annoyance through the tiniest gestures and expressions. (That he’s also an actor so easily primed to be rather more explosive is clear early on, too, even if you’ve never see his work before.)
The situation escalates into one of those in which it seems that people of good intentions cannot win out over people of bad intentions. And it’s all happening in a slow-burn atmosphere: literally. It’s a scorching-hot summer, and a drought-ridden one, and fires are rushing over the hills toward the homes of the Turners and the Mattsons. Surely none of this can end well…
All else I’ll say is: I’ve never wanted to own a house, and now I really don’t. And if they showed Lakeview Terrace to everyone applying for a mortgage, no one else would want to, either.