Chris and Lisa Mattson (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) are moving into their first mortgage: a beautiful house in a beautiful neighborhood in the hills of Los Angeles. It's literally a dream come true. Except for the guy already living next door. Abel Turner (Samuel L. Jackson) is professional hard-ass as a man, as a single father, as a cop. As a neighbor.
The horrors of Lakeview Terrace are those of the everyday stripe, like Abel's barely subsumed anger, the tyranny of suburbia, and the discomforts of racism that linger even when that ugliness may not actually be present. Director Neil LaBute, working from a script by David Loughery and Howard Korder, plays with expectations about race as this tidy little package of a movie opens, 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 know the white man is Chris, the husband (the older black man, played by Ron Glass, is Lisa's father). But clever of LaBute to cast relative unknowns Wilson and Washington as his new homeowners: moviegoers not in the know will get the first of many shakeups just then.
While Wilson and Washington have been in lower-profile roles before, each has extraordinary screen presence. Even better, when together, they 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.
At first it's sly, subtle comments about who belongs with whom, "jokes" about what makes a person black or white, and minor harassment. 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, 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 remarkably 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 seen his work before.)
The situation escalates. Soon, it feels as if 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 that I'll say is: I've never wanted to own a house, and now I really don't. (Rated PG-13)