‘Lakeview Terrace’

Four little words can say so much.

The young, idealistic protagonists in “Lakeview Terrace,” for example, might ask themselves, “Why did we move here?” Especially when their new next-door neighbor reacts to their presence with an inexplicably hostile “Not in my neighborhood.”

And crabby movie critics will sigh and ponder the four saddest words of tongue or pen: it might have been. (Just ask poet John Greenleaf Whittier.)

Or, more to the point, just watch “Lakeview Terrace.”

A topical thriller with a provocative edge — and a chance to catch Samuel L. Jackson in prime button-pushing mode — “Lakeview Terrace” is one of those movies that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

Not because it’s so grippingly suspenseful, but because you’re hoping against hope that it’ll be different, that it’ll live up to its potential, that it won’t bumble and stumble inevitably downhill before plunging off the cliff of in-your-face obviousness.

No such luck.

More’s the pity, because there are times when “Lakeview Terrace” burrows into your brain — and under your skin — to explore unsettling questions of race and identity, power and authority.

Initially, “Lakeview Terrace” emerges as a variation on all those wacko-from-hell thrillers that dominated multiplexes in the ’80s and ’90s, including “Fatal Attraction” (jilted lover from hell) and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” (nanny from hell).

There was even a cop from hell making life miserable for his unsuspecting neighbors in “Unlawful Entry.”

The same premise applies here, as Los Angeles police officer Abel Turner (Jackson) provides a less than enthusiastic welcome to his new neighbors, Chris and Lisa Mattson.

Maybe he resents the fact that Chris (“Little Children’s” Patrick Wilson) and Lisa (“The Last King of Scotland’s” Kerry Washington) are young, blissfully happy and just beginning their life together in a new home.

Especially because he’s widowed, with two fractious kids (Regine Nehy, Jaishon Fisher) to discipline — and a peaceful suburban neighborhood to patrol. That is, when he’s not busting dopers, dealers and gangbangers as a Los Angeles cop.

Or maybe Abel resents Chris and Lisa because he’s white and she’s black — a fact that bothers them not at all. Abel’s attitude, however, is considerably less tolerant.

One of “Lakeview Terrace’s” initial strengths is its reluctance to spell everything out for us — and its willingness to let us observe and draw our own conclusions.

Director Neil LaBute, working from a screenplay by David Loughery (“Money Train”) and Howard Korder (“The Passion of Ayn Rand”) knows this territory well.

After all, his 1997 big-screen debut, “In the Company of Men,” transformed the controversial playwright into an indie darling with its tale of two nasty salesmen pretending to romance a deaf colleague just to humiliate her.

Some of those squirmingly provocative, twist-the-knife moments also find their way into “Lakeview Terrace.” Abel can’t help but grin — sometimes inwardly, sometimes not — at the ways in which his manipulative intimidation games affect his new neighbors’ increasingly tense marriage.

And, of course, it enables Abel to revel in the role of the big man with the badge, despite the fact that his aggressive policing has triggered trouble with the LAPD powers-that-be.

Too bad “Lakeview Terrace’s” powers-that-be couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Instead of trusting their characters and script — and trusting that the audience would pick up on the emotional undercurrents — “Lakeview Terrace’s” makers opt for the sledgehammer approach.

Just when the movie has you convinced it’s not going to succumb to its basest instincts, it succumbs.

The increasingly ludicrous script contrasts the macho, self-righteous Abel with the wimpy liberal (or should that be liberal wimp?) Chris, defining masculinity through caricature, not character.

As if we couldn’t figure out what’s bothering Abel, the script gives him an explain-it-all monologue that’s so incredibly on the nose it’s like one of those “Wheel of Fortune” puzzles where all the letters have been filled in — only the poor contestant still can’t figure it out.

And an out-of-control wildfire burning ever closer to “Lakeview Terrace’s” title neighborhood provides a visual metaphor worthy of a collective “Well, duuh …”

But it meshes with the movie’s heat-not-light philosophy, as it degenerates from a potentially thoughtful exploration of hot-button issues to just another over-the-top thriller.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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