‘Lakeview Terrace’: Film tackles provocative ideas, but flounders in B-movie pulp

Whatever else “Lakeview Terrace” proves, it makes plain that Samuel L. Jackson, 14 years after “Pulp Fiction,” still brings the menace.

The formidable Mr. Jackson, playing a Los Angeles cop, makes life miserable for the new couple that move in next door. They are played by Patrick Wilson and Kerry Washington, and apparently the fact that he is white and she is black rubs their neighbor the wrong way.

So this a reverse-racism story, and somebody had the idea to hire Neil LaBute (“In the Company of Men”), no stranger to controversial material, to direct.

The result is a strange combination of social comment and B-movie juice. It’s made with conviction, but it’s hard to shake the feeling you’re being put through the wringer for the sake of sensation.

Except for a couple of forays into Jackson’s violent patrol beat, the film is almost entirely set in a Los Angeles suburban cul-de-sac. A raging forest fire approaches in the latter part of the picture, filling the sky with smoke — a visual stunner, even if the symbolism weighs heavy.

Among the movie’s less believable qualities is that no other neighbors have had any problems with the increasingly psychotic Jackson. Apparently they’re so happy to have a tough cop patrolling their block, they don’t mind that he shines his floodlights all over the cul-de-sac every night. Late in the film we find out why he might have snapped at the sight of this interracial couple moving in, but it’s flimsy as an explanation.

Somewhere in the film’s measured mayhem, LaBute does try to suggest that society is actually grateful for thuggish characters such as Jackson — he’s a violent rule-breaker, but when the chips are down you want him in your foxhole.

There is an interesting movie to make from that idea, but “Lakeview Terrace” isn’t it. The film totters between strong scenes and improbabilities with regularity.

Patrick Wilson, from “Little Children,” does well as the bewildered husband, and Kerry Washington (“Ray”) holds her own as the wife. Problem is, every time they enter intriguing territory about race, their neighbor shows up with a chain saw.

Samuel Jackson’s career has taken some unusual turns lately; I’d have thought, after “Pulp Fiction,” that he might have won a couple of Oscars by now. He’s formidable here, but somebody give the man a more complex role immediately.

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