Lakeview Terrace | Samuel L Jackson menaces the neighbours while Neil LaBute fans the flames of racial tension

As everyone basks in the afterglow of Barack Obama’s election victory, along comes arch provocateur Neil LaBute to bring a chill to the prevailing mood of warm and fuzzy self-congratulation. His unnerving new movie, the thriller Lakeview Terrace, is a bracing reminder that the United States has not turned overnight into a post-racial society.

As a playwright and filmmaker, LaBute has spent his career lobbing incendiaries into the most combustible areas of modern life. From his debut movie, the bleak satirical drama In the Company of Men (misogyny in the white-collar workplace), to his disturbing new play, which recently opened at London's Almeida Theatre, In a Dark Dark House (the consequences of sexual abuse), he has exploded liberal pieties and challenged taboos.

Lakeview Terrace tackles race and, typically, LaBute approaches the issue from an unexpected angle. Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington play an upwardly mobile interracial couple, Chris and Lisa Mattson, who move into a similarly upwardly mobile street in suburban Los Angles and find themselves living next door to Samuel L Jackson’s single parent cop, Abel Turner, a strict disciplinarian to his two kids and self-appointed one-man neighbourhood watch.

Lakeview Terrace - Patrick Wilson & Samuel L Jackson

From the off, it’s clear that Abel disapproves of Chris and Lisa’s marriage; you could say the idea of a black woman living with a white man really gets under his skin. At first his hostility is expressed in needling comments: “You can listen to that shit all night,” he spits, discovering Chris listening to rap music. “In the morning when you wake up you’ll still be white.”

Lakeview Terrace - Patrick Wilson & Kerry Washington

As his campaign of intimidation escalates, however, the blatantly symbolic wildfires that are sweeping the city get ever closer to the cul-de-sac…

LaBute doesn’t need the flames. And he doesn’t need the shoot-out that is Lakeview Terrace’s all-too-conventional finale. Jackson is much more menacing when he is quietly insinuating than when he reaches for his gun, and Lakeview Terrace is much more disturbing before the film’s corrosive racial resentment and hatred spills into actual violence.

Jason Best

A film critic for over 25 years, Jason admits the job can occasionally be glamorous – sitting on a film festival jury in Portugal; hanging out with Baz Luhrmann at the Chateau Marmont; chatting with Sigourney Weaver about The Archers – but he mostly spends his time in darkened rooms watching films. He’s also written theatre and opera reviews, two guide books on Rome, and competed in a race for Yachting World, whose great wheeze it was to send a seasick film critic to write about his time on the ocean waves. But Jason is happiest on dry land with a classic screwball comedy or Hitchcock thriller.