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Lakeview Terrace

Right Next Door to Hell

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

Neil LaBute’s 2006 remake of The Wicker Man found the director and sometime playwright’s talent for incisive, often unsettling character portraits wasted on a lumbering exercise in self-parody. His curious follow-up, Lakeview Terrace, returns him to more familiar territory: a world on which one man’s distaste for his neighbors’ mixed marriage leads first to petty hostilities and later to something more serious.

That man is Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson), a 28-year veteran of the Los Angeles police force and a stern widower who tells his children what to wear, how to think, even which basketball greats -- Shaq, not Kobe -- they’re allowed to cheer for. Abel is, to put it mildly, a control freak, the booming voice of hysterical conservatism and racist paranoia who flies into a rage when his bellicose pronouncements are ignored. Even in his calmer moments, he creates an atmosphere of unease with his baleful stare and icy insinuations.

Abel is on an increasingly deranged mission to rid his neighborhood of newcomers Chris (Patrick Wilson, of Little Children) and Lisa (Kerry Washington), an interracial couple whose free-spirited liberalism has no place on his turf. His disdain manifests itself in a series of cutting remarks and thinly veiled threats before graduating to vandalism and worse. Lakeview Terrace, which begins as a tense, compelling tale of ideological opposites headed for an ugly clash, ends in contrived melodrama as Abel completes his transformation from badge-waving bully to bogeyman.

LaBute’s films have often reflected a fascination with the evil that men do, perhaps none moreso than his singularly grim debut, 1997’s In the Company of Men. Lakeview Terrace, which LaBute did not write, is no less affecting when it treats its characters as human beings rather than as stock players in an increasingly cliché-ridden thriller. In the early going, Abel is just complex enough to be intriguing -- unreasonable and intolerant, yes, but somehow sympathetic in his struggle to hold his own family together. By the final frame, he is a monster hiding behind his shield, a caricature guided not by principle but by raving bloodlust.