Contemporary film noirs typically wind up as stiff and artificial as the aftereffects of a Botox party, but not The Lookout. Veteran screenwriter Scott Frank, making an impressive directorial debut here, adheres to the tenets of the genre without the results feeling like a tribute. The psychologically hobbled hero, the pervasive moral ambivalence, the femme fatale, etc. - falls into place in this taut thriller.
True to the noir aesthetic, the movie's hero is damaged goods -- literally. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a popular high school jock whose fortunes change one ill-fated night in which he's responsible for a car crash that kills two friends and cripples his girlfriend. A resulting head injury has rendered Chris a different person. He cannot remember things in sequence. He has inexplicable crying spells. He possesses no filter to keep from saying things better left unsaid, particularly around women. Perhaps most frustrating is a defective memory that forces him to record everything in a notebook he keeps with him at all times.
Haunted by his past and besieged by his present, Chris Pratt is tailor-made for the ambivalence of a noir universe. In this instance, that world is the fictitious town of Noel, Kansas. It's a hollow existence for our protagonist. He mops the floors of a small bank and rooms with a sharp-witted blind man named Lewis (the always dependable Jeff Daniels) whom he met at a rehabilitation center. Chris cannot make it through his daily routine without checking his notebook, and yet he chafes against the limitations of his condition. The past still exerts a powerful hold, the glorious days when Chris was the big man on campus, a fearsome (and perhaps cruel) champion hockey player. He can't square those memories with the young man for whom opening a can of tomatoes is now a Herculean task.
In short, he is a prime target to be duped. Enter Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), a charismatic, smooth-talking thug who meets Chris at a bar one night. Gary is bad news through and through, but he stokes Chris' lingering feelings of entitlement. It also doesn't hurt that Gary introduces Chris to a sexy ex-stripper with the stage name Luvlee Lemons (the always sex-kittenish Isla Fisher).
Like many a great noirish thriller, the audience is several steps ahead of Chris, and we know what he is too slow to see. But Gary eventually makes it clear after a drug-addled Thanksgiving dinner: he and his pals plan to rob the bank where Chris works, but they need someone on the inside.
The script for The Lookout famously kicked around Hollywood for years until its author, ace screenwriter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Minority Report), decided to just direct the damned thing himself. And the movie gods are glad he did. Frank's directorial debut nearly matches his masterful writing, creating beautifully realized characters from what easily could have been archetypes. The writing inspires knockout performances from a first-rate cast. Daniels has a great time with his role as the acid-tongued Lewis, and Goode is nearly unrecognizable from his fey turn in 2005's Match Point. This guy is a friggin' chameleon.
But the standout is Gordon-Levitt, who adds to a remarkable under-the-Hollywood-radar resume that includes 2004's Mysterious Skin and last year's Brick. He conveys startling depth as Chris, infusing the character with complexity and nuance. Although I would not bank on it, Gorodn-Levitt's performance deserves an Oscar nomination.
In the end, the biggest star turn is Scott Frank himself. The Lookout bears traces of other movies, especially Memento and the criminally overlooked Kansas noir of Harold Ramis' The Ice Harvest, but Frank's screenplay manages the neat trick of exemplifying film noir without feeling particularly derivative. Best of all, there are no extraneous scenes here. The filmmaker doles out the information we need in a meticulously constructed narrative. And he clearly has a blast riffing on the nature of storytelling itself. When the brain-damaged Chris tries to improve his ability to sequence, Lewis helpfully urges him to think of his life as a story akin to Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
And like that old chestnut, The Lookout proves to be, well, just right.
Presented in 2.40:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16x9 televisions, The Lookout looks terrific, with sharp, crisp details and a beautifully composed color palette. A few of the darker scenes have very slight grain, but the vast majority of the movie is visually arresting, almost painterly.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is solid but not particularly creative with sound separation. Audio is also available in French, with subtitles in English, French and Spanish.
A commentary with Scott Frank and director of photography Alar Kivilo will be of particular interest for budding filmmakers and hardcore movie buffs, as the pair delve into the mechanics of shooting. Frank is refreshingly self-effacing, pointing out every rookie directorial mistake on his part. He is too hard on himself.
In Behind the Mind of Chris Pratt (9:26), Frank and Gordon-Levitt offer insight into the collaboration that resulted in the character of the protagonist. Gordon-Levitt notes that his research included visiting with people who have suffered from head injuries.
Clocking in at nearly 20 minutes, Sequencing The Lookout boasts interviews with cast and crew for a strong featurette touching on most aspects of the film.
Don't miss it. The Lookout is muscular and suspenseful, character-driven and poignant. First-rate writing and performances make this one of the best films of the year.