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Friday, Sept. 26, 2008

Lake Terrace

Samuel L. Jackson’s race card

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Neil LaBute established his reputation as a director and writer with gritty, unrelenting scenarios about human nastiness-male division. Let's call him the David Mamet of post-boomer suburbia for short.

But if In the Company of Men and Your Friends &Neighbors were almost vile in their depiction of vile behavior, Lake Terrace represents LaBute at his most polished. His latest movie weds a story from the seamy edge of contemporary society to the tightly focused format of a well-paced Hollywood psychological thriller. It's almost a superb film, except for going a little bonkers at the climax and a too-neat, crowd-pleasing resolution.

Fine movies about demonic neighbors and racist cops have already been made, but LaBute reverses all polarities. In Lakeview Terrace, the manipulative and nasty neighbor is a police officer, a racist of African-American origin. He is simmering with rage at the sight of the biracial couple that moves next door. Moreover, he is not entirely unsympathetic, and the neighbors aren't always paragons of enlightenment.

It's another terrific performance by Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Officer Abel Turner, a widower raising two kids under a strict regimen intended to keep them on track and out of trouble. He's a good parent, albeit too controlling. He means well as he gazes at his progeny with eyes hopeful for the future. But Abel's face hardens at the sight of white corporate manager Chris (Patrick Wilson) and his black bride, Lisa (Kerry Washington); his glower is barely restrained. While going through the motions of neighborliness, a glint in those sphinx eyes and an undertone in his resonant voice betray his mounting displeasure.

Part of the brilliance of LaBute's script rises from the way Abel insinuates menace by degree. Even his most reasonable and accommodating words conceal a steely blade waiting to draw blood. Actions follow speech. Some of the tangible signals Abel sends are pointedly funny. He turns up with a book on black pride as a housewarming gift. Some are annoying, like those bright security lights trained on Chris and Lisa's bedroom window. And some become dangerous.

One of the story's hooks is the helplessness of the couple under assault. How do you call the police when the police turn criminal?

The couple's appearance of newly wedded happiness at first conceals their distance from each other. Lisa is a vivacious woman from an important family. Her father is a dignified figure, a statesman who arrives in a chauffeured black Cadillac. Chris is-and this might be LaBute's intended pun-colorless, the sort of emotional blank who would blend easily into a gray office cubicle.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Abel is working to widen the barely perceptible, hairline fractures that already exist in Chris and Lisa's marriage as the result of four centuries of racial history. His unseen parents are apparently too nice, perennially on best-behavior alert whenever she shows up. Lisa's father isn't pleased with the thought of biracial grandchildren and evinces a certain condescension for his son-in-law.

Abel's perspective remains comprehensible even as his villainy intensifies. He's an angry man in search of borders, anxious over declining conditions in contemporary African-American society and resentful of whites that try to play black. And he gets all of the movie's best lines. Smiling grimly on the driveway when Chris pulls up with rap blaring from his CD player, Abel reminds him: "You can listen to that noise all night long, but when you wake up in the morning, you'll still be white."