The beauty of Scott Frank's "The Lookout" is not found in the thrill of criminal stimulation, but the way the filmmaker uses the promise of dread to build characterization that puts the viewer right in the middle of the conflict.
After suffering a horrible brain injury in a traumatic car accident, small town hockey hero Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) encounters trouble rebuilding his life. Unable to process his emotions and complex memory requirements naturally, he's taken a job as a bank janitor to help pass the time. When Gary (Matthew Goode, "Match Point"), an old high school acquaintance, enters his life, Chris feels essential again, leaving behind his blind roommate (Jeff Daniels). Situations turn sticky when Gary reveals he has more in mind for Chris than just beers and girlfriends (Isla Fisher, "Wedding Crashers").
Frank is the celebrated screenwriter behind "Dead Again," "Malice," and "Out of Sight," so the man knows a thing or two about the icy curves of a mystery thriller. For his directorial debut, Frank has stripped down his writing to the coldest of essentials, peeling away his more baroque instincts and stylistic ambitions. "Lookout" introduces itself as a creature of small comforts through minimalist, snowbound Midwestern locations and Chris's daily rituals that have him tightly snug in the daily rotation of prescription pills, inane chatter with friends, and emotional blow-ups. This is how Frank sets up the bear trap.
Those used to their crime thrillers percolating every 15 minutes or so before the final payoff might be a little baffled by "Lookout." At its core, this is a character drama, spending more time observing Chris's mental incapacity and frustrations than with bullets and grunts. The effect is almost revelatory; the picture burrows right into the emotional struggles of the lead character, winding the audience up with the feeling of assurance that they identify with Chris before things turn sour.
Lead by an unusually molded performance from Gordon-Levitt (an actor who could use more roles that require uncharacteristic silence like this) and Frank's itchy, inspired screenwriting, "Lookout" is driven by the aggravation of Chris and his vulnerability to someone who will pay attention to him not out of obligation, but out of respect. The film imparts a feeling of realism with these characters, even though the inevitable situation Chris comes to be a reluctant part of is one of the cornerstones of thriller cinema.
When Gary's bank heist blueprint is established into the picture, Frank does fumble one little detail: the character of Bone. A sickly-looking man clad in black, with long thinning hair and sunglasses straight out of an Andy Sedaris revenge fantasy, Bone is Gary's unofficial enforcer and the film's one momentary loss of patience. Frank employs Bone to be the gorilla of menace; a shotgun-happy mute with a low tolerance for small-town, gee-whiz nonsense. Bone sticks out like a sore thumb in "Lookout," and plays into convention the film didn't need for nourishment.
"Lookout" does soften into twists and turns, but Frank has earned these moments with Chris and his woozy instants of one-upmanship. Trying to find a way to connect the circles of the plot, Frank soon returns to the quiet core of the story and gently pays off the characters the way he introduced them: with blood-smeared respect and a cinnamon civility.
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