A skillful and compelling character study under the guise of a heist movie, "The Lookout" in many ways has sold itself short in the marketing department. What appears to be trite and predictable in a trailer or television ad is not at all in its complete form, which economically presents a fully-formed story and an intimately written three-dimensional protagonist in just over 90 minutes. When the action, intrigue and bloodshed are finally let loose in the last act, it is terrifically riveting, but the film is even more solid as it builds a foundation from which the viewer comes to sympathize with and care about the vulnerable central figure.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2005's "Mysterious Skin
") continues to defy the odds of being a childhood sitcom star of the '90s by establishing himself as one of the great young actors of his generation. He plays Chris Pratt, a popular and talented high schooler who is involved in a life-altering car crash that leaves him brain damaged and plagued with guilt over the deaths of his friends. Four years later, Chris' once-bright future has collapsed into a daily struggle with his short-term memory, kept in relative check through the notes he writes in a tablet. Going to a special-needs college by day and working as a late-night janitor at a bank branch, Chris is left frustrated by the stagnant future he sees before him and desperate for a change.
His best chance for acceptance is Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), a former acquaintance of Chris' older sister who meets and befriends him at the local pub. Before long, Chris is straying more and more from blind best friend and roommate Lewis (Jeff Daniels) and hanging out with Gary's buddies. He even gets a cute girlfriend, sweet former exotic dancer Luvlee (Isla Fisher). Things are not what they seem in these fresh relationships, however, and Chris is faced with some tough decisions when he is pressured into helping Gary case out and rob the bank he works at.
"The Lookout" is the impressive directing debut of screenwriter Scott Frank (2005's "The Interpreter
"), and his know-how of keenly-plotted narrative constructions and poppy dialogue are in full effect here. Opening with the events that led to Chris' handicap, the film only spends a few minutes with the old version of him, but it is so rich in suggestion that one immediately gets a sense of the loss he is faced with for the rest of the picture. Where Frank goes so right is in his soulful and humane treatment of Chris, whose mental deficiencies are not treated as a mechanical plot gimmick but as a crucial and sad part of who he is. Only able to formulate lists and plans in backwards order, Chris' everyday existence is an uphill climb. And lest he ever forget, he returns on a regular basis to the spot where he was responsible for accidentally killing two teenage friends. Writer-director Frank dodges going overboardChris is still a functioning young man, after all, even if his coldly wealthy father (Bruce McGill) does contribute to his bills and apartmentinstead subtly suggesting in varied ways of the emotional distance between himself and the outside world.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the glue that holds the film together whenever it does threaten to slip into convention. Portraying the tragic Chris Pratt, Gordon-Levitt brilliantly treats the role as an authentic person rather than a scripted invention. Finding sumptuous nuances, superb intuitions and sheer profundity in a man unable to let go of the past because of the uncertainties in his future, Gordon-Levitt is a revelation in every scene, moment and glance. When Chris finds himself in over his head and unable to back down from his agreement to take part in the bank robbery, director Scott Frank is astute in holding the story down in constant plausibility even as he raises the tension levels and comes up with some excitingly original new hurdles for Chris to face.
The supporting ensemble is top notch, too. Jeff Daniels (2006's "RV
") is a natural and ideal fit for Lewis, a middle-aged teddy bear of a guy who doesn't allow his blindness to keep him down. Daniels invests strength into Lewis, but also a poignant loneliness after Chris begins drifting away from their friendship. As Gary, Matthew Goode (2005's "Match Point
") turns in an intentionally off-kilter performance that paints him at first as a standard-issue schemer and then, by the bloody finale, into a despicably deranged maniac whose own mental grasp is in question. Goode's particularly played villain is the type that one loves to hate. Finally, Isla Fisher (2005's "Wedding Crashers
") is a positive and welcome female presence as Luvlee, the ambiguously moral love interest of Chris. Of the prominent players, Luvlee is unfortunately the most neglected; Fisher is treated as one of the leads for a while, and then suddenly disappears following a tacked-on scene where her purpose is left a mystery.
Clad with a moody complimentary score by James Newton Howard (2002's "Signs
") and cinematography by Alar Kivilo (2006's "The Lake House
") that emphasizes its bitingly cold Midwestern setting, "The Lookout" is a provocative adult drama of which few are made these days. The heist material, though stylishly pulled off, is old-hat in an age where "Ocean's Eleven
" is about to become "Ocean's Thirteen," but the layered and sincere exploration into Chris' troubled life and mental ordeal is what escalates the film above the crime thriller norm. As with the recent "Zodiac
," it is nice to see a picture of this ilk that doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence and continuously enraptures one's attention for the duration. If "The Lookout" is an accurate indication of what's to come, Scott Frank has a long directorial career ahead of him.