In a seemingly clean, pristine bedroom community outside Los Angeles, a young inter-racial couple move in with hopes of domestic bliss. But things soon begin going bump (and other far more unpleasant verbs) by day and by night, courtesy of a disgruntled, verging on pathological, neighbor. That, in a nervous nutshell, is the simple premise of this unnervingly alluring and subtext-complicated thriller. Here all the elements are in place, but the anchor is a force called Samuel L. Jackson.
Neil LaBute is only a director for hire here, in contrast to his more biting and dark projects as writer/director, but he brings his dramatic and cinematic cunning to the job and nicely taps into the Hitchcock-ian vein without being too obvious about it. LaBute calibrates the slow, steady descent from bland suburban realities into psychological tensions fit to burst-and burn and finally melt down beyond the realm of what is civil. Mychael Danna’s oozing, enigmatic music helps paint impending dread, again in a subtle way, without blatant thriller music tip-off insinuations.
As the aggrieved neighbor, urged on by race rage, personal demons, and standard parental angst, Jackson is scary good. He’s an angry L.A. cop fueled by nasty, nagging memories and a desire to raise his two children in a nicer ‘hood than his South Central upbringing. His buttons are then easily pushed with the arrival of a white man (Patrick Wilson) and his black wife (Kerry Washington) next door. Sometimes, the inter-neighbor friction amounts to taunts and heated words (Wilson’s character is goaded into an angry “fuck you,” and Jackson coolly mocks him). At other times, the brewing internal violence and clash of wits goes closer to the edge of anarchy.
This thriller’s successful arc is all about the art of the fester, craftily delivered by LaBute. As a growing SoCal fire’s noxious fumes and flames-a central metaphor-veer ever closer to the subdivision, suburban normality begins to seem like an elusive dream turning to nightmare. Creature discomforts sneak in the side door and refuse to leave.