directed by Neil LaBute
written by David Loughery and Howard Korder
starring Samuel L. Jackson, Patrick Wilson, Kerry Washington, Ron Glass, Javier Villareal, Regine Nehy, Jaishon Fisher, Keith Loneker
It’s been three years since his wife was killed in a head on collision and Abel Turner (Jackson) is still mourning. He’s got two young kids, Celia (Nehy) who is fifteen and Marcus (Fisher), 11. He is exceedingly strict and a possesses a nearly pathological need to be in control at all times. He’s also a cop whose been on the job for 26 years and clearly loves every aspect of his job. Sometimes, however, the aggression and license for brutality spills over into his every day life and he tends occasionally to get a bit out of hand. This tendency is exacerbated when Chris (Wilson) and Lisa (Washington) Mattson move into his suburb next door. They are an interracial couple who Turner immediately takes a disliking to. It’s never quite clear how important their racial makeup is to his overall rage but he does make several comments regarding it that are far from congenial. He does not approve of much of anything that the Mattson’s do and quickly makes his presence felt by sabotaging their air condition. Then he slashes their tires and persists in playing the hyper masculine one-up game with Chris.
Much of the film is a psychological wargame between Abel and Chris who get entangled in something that is potentially dangerous to them both. Chris and Lisa begin to have some slight marital problems brought on by the stress of living under Abel’s watch. He not only patrols the neighborhood every night, he patrols them and makes certain there is nothing inappropriate that he might have to deal with. Abel Turner is a man who cannot stand the fact that Chris throws his cigarette butts over his fence so his wife won’t find out about them. He simply cannot stand anything out of order and has conservative political views that clash mightily with Chris’s Berkley, California values. He graduated from the college there and Abel makes great fun out of the fact that Chris is a “tree-hugging” liberal Democrat.
There are cultural, political, racial and personal divides that separate Abel from Chris. Abel hates the fact that Chris listens to rap music saying “you can listen to that noise all night long but when you wake up you’ll still be white”. Abel has a strict personal code that slowly erodes as the film progresses. He is temporarily relieved of his duties after bashing a suspect in the ribs with the barrel of his gun. It is revealed that he has a history of such behavior and it’s an indictment on the LAPD that such a cop has for so long been allowed to remain on the force. Abel is a good cop in that he is loyal to his partner and manages to clean up the streets with alacrity and precision. He knows what he does and he does it exceedingly well when he’s not snapping and letting his seething anger get the best of him.
Chris Mattson is a typical liberal who believes strictly in avoiding confrontation at all costs until things get so far out of hand and he has no choice but to revert to the conservative virtue of self-preservation. Under normal circumstances he is able and willing to take a considerable amount of distress before acting in a decisive manner. In this film he puts up with the aforementioned terror, personal insults, illegal detainment and other inconveniences. There is a poignant moment in a bar where Abel tells Chris that “today is the third anniversary of my wife’s death”. He then goes on to pity himself in a display which is most like designed to stir up some sympathy for Abel although the film presents him as such from the first frame.
Abel Turner is a likeable character and this has everything to do with Samuel L. Jackson’s performance. He’s gregarious and charismatic throughout which is belied by his inability to control his anger. It’s clear that this anger is a projection of his deed frustration and anguish over events he could not control. He blames himself for not being there to protect his wife from her fate and it tears into him every day without end. His rage is unyielding as he seems to satisfy the appeal of his emotions through his job and control of his children. He is simply a man who cannot tolerate interferences with his carefully orchestrated, specifically controlled environment that he regulates as he sees fit. Chris is an intrusion perhaps because he reminds Abel of the white man that his wife was riding with when she was killed.
The racial dynamics play out through various channels that suggest Abel has a tendency to direct a specific animus against Chris for attempting to co-opt his race. As mentioned Chris listens to loud hip-hop in his car and this upsets Abel because he feels that no white boy has any right to ape black culture because it’s his and it belongs to him. In a sense Abel feels as if Chris is stealing something very valuable from him by daring to cohabit with a black woman who should know better than to allow her self to be “taken” by someone who isn’t really much of a man to begin with. The implication here is that a black man–any black man–could satisfy Lisa better than an ineffectual “sugar britches” who ought to stick to his own kind.
For his part Chris maintains a certain equanimity with Abel and takes every diplomatic measure at his disposal. He attempts to reason with Abel but soon discovers that this is impossible because Abel believes emphatically that he is entirely in the right. He is convinced that his every action is perfectly reasonable and refuses to consider the situation to be otherwise. Lisa remains in the background and gradually the terror in her eyes becomes more pronounced. There is a fear that Abel is going to try something with her but is held back by some sort of aching propriety. She is rather helpless throughout the film and we never get to see a particularly strong or primal side of her. She’s apparently successful and able to stay at home to do her designs but there is something lacking in her personality that relegates her to a supporting role that merely comforts Chris when they aren’t fighting over trivialities.
The physicality of Abel Turner is a decisive force that separates him from Chris. Abel is an intimidating specimen who hides behind the badge and believes emphatically that it gives him carte blanche to do whatever he chooses to do. He is not entirely corrupt but he has been known to jack various arrestees who rub him the wrong way. He’s simply a brute who is essentially a powder keg ready to go off and Chris and Lisa’s relationship proves to light the fuse.
Samuel L. Jackson dominates every scene he’s in here. He’s robust, dynamic and fueled by an intensity that is pronounced and thrilling. Particularly when his character is expressing his rage over matters that challenge his sense of control, he is a force of nature that seems determined to remove the scourge from his life and restore calm that is exceedingly important to his way of life. Jackson plays the duplicitous nature of Abel with effortless charm and Panzer aggression He sells Abel as a troubled man who must establish his kingship in his territory without fail. Patrick Wilson demonstrates a calm, easy manner that works within the context of the film. His character seems to shun aggressiveness and typical male behavior in order to maintain a level of stasis within which he realizes is his best defense against obstacles that might otherwise befall him. Chris is careful and observant. He doesn’t adhere to the same demonstrative rules that inform nearly every one of Abel’s actions. Kerry Washington plays Lisa as something of a wallflower. There is a distance in her eyes that is never revoked as the film progresses. It’s difficult to get inside Lisa’s head as she attempts to maneuver her way in a world that is perfectly alien to her. It’s clear that Washington is easing up to demonstrate her character’s status as a genuinely strained individual who simply cannot comprehend these distractions.
Overall, this films captures a disparity between a controlling, exceedingly conservative cop and a former Berkley student who doesn’t speak the language of power, aggression and violence. Abel Turner knows the ways in which mankind erupts and tears itself apart. He has seen and experienced violence that Chris has only read about. Abel disapproves of Chris’s politics as well as his relationship with Lisa. He wants nothing more than to drive a wedge between them or to convince them to bail on their house and leave the neighborhood. They represent what he considers to be a failure on his part that he can never forgive himself for. It drives him persistently and the sight of Lisa and Chris drives him over the edge causing him to act in decidedly confrontational ways. He loses control which further enrages him as he is driven by his self-hatred toward a cliff.