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DOWNRIGHT UN-NEIGHBORLY

 “Lakeview Terrace” is a chance to watch Samuel L. Jackson deliver a bravura performance in a movie that is provocative, funny, irritating and horrifying.
    Slick and well-crafted are other things this movie is. The story starts calmly, even pleasantly, but soon disturbing little rumbles get our attention. The rumbles build to a roar, and eventually, through a logical if unlikely progression, to a violent and noisy climax.
    The action takes place during an oppressive hot spell in Southern California, when wildfires are creeping towards the expensive hillside homes. The sound design makes good use of almost subliminal radio narration of the fire's advance, which registers in our hind-brain before we actually see the smoke. The fire's progress mirrors the plot's development, which you may think simplistic, but I think is a pretty nifty metaphor, having lived through more than two of those fires.
    If you have a long memory the title might give you a hint about the subject matter, because Lakeview Terrace is the LA neighborhood where Rodney King had his contretemps with the LAPD in 1991. In the succeeding decades race relations in America have grown ever more complex, multi-layered and unpredictable, so that you can end up, in a movie like “Lakeview Terrace,” with no idea whom you're supposed to cheer and whom you're supposed to boo.
    We open with Jackson as Abel Turner, a widower who's raising two adorable but sometimes surly kids in an attractive upper-middle neighborhood on a hilltop overlooking LA. Abel climbs out of bed and drops to his knees to pray, so we know he's a good guy, right? And if he's a strict disciplinarian, we all know kids who need Tough Love.
    When his new neighbors move in they prove to be a mixed-race couple: newlyweds Chris and Lisa (Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington) who are very much in love. The rumbles grow to growls in Abel's first meetings with Chris, as Chris and Lisa display behavior of which Abel doesn't approve.     Chris likes to have a driveway moment in the evening when he gets back from work, savoring an illicit cigarette and listening to rap on the car radio. Abel introduces himself  by threatening Chris with a gun and pretending to take his wallet – pretty heavy-handed for a first meeting. As he heads home, Abel says “You know, you can listen to that noise all night long – when you wake up in the morning you'll still be white.”
    And then, oops, Chris and Lisa make love in their backyard pool, in full view of the kids' window. Is Turner upset because his kids saw it, or because he doesn't like the idea of a sister married to a white guy? Hmmm.
    We've soon twigged to the fact that Turner has an agenda, but it takes a while before we learn that it has to do with the way his wife died. Along the way we see him become more unreasonable and tyrannical with his kids, as his treatment of the new neighbors escalates to the point of persecution.
    Here is where Jackson's performance becomes thrilling: not in the controlled rages, where he's certainly strong, but in the unpredictable instant snaps between affability and threat that are the marks of the psychotic. You can see these snaps in Shakespeare's Richard, Duke of Gloucester as Olivier plays him, and it makes you feel both the horror and the glee that you experience here.
    Director Neil LaBute is a playwright (he didn't write the screenplay) who is famous for throwing his audiences off-balance, and here we get the feeling that he's manipulating our confusion just because he can.
    There are several possible reactions, the first of which is the aforementioned confusion: Jackson is playing the bad guy, but since he's black, should we feel guilty about disliking him? Or should we think of it as color-blind casting and go ahead and hiss the villain? Or should we wait to see what his motivations are? After all, he may have deep psychological problems. Turns out he does, of course, though you'll have to determine for yourself if his problems are persuasive enough to turn a strong-willed, upright guy into a monster.
    And it's not just Abel Turner who makes us uncomfortable. Ron Glass plays Lisa's father as a dignified businessman who can barely conceal his distaste for his son-in-law. And at a housewarming party, Turner manages to offend all of Chris and Lisa's liberal friends, many of whom are also interracial couples, and some of whom are laughably shallow. Then there are the cops, whose racial acceptance extends only to their fellow officers, and whose raunchy bachelor party, at Abel's house, becomes an instrument of ugly humiliation for Chris.
     LaBute may be saying that there's no solution here, just as there appears to be no solution in real life, and that individual situations will always trump sweeping generalizations. Personally I'd leave it at that, even though it's unsatisfactory, because we're not going to figure out which side he's on, or if he's just messing with us. That may be a puzzle, but it doesn't rank as an enigma.