A superior crime thriller graced with wonderful characterizations, The Lookout is an impressive directing debut for Scott Frank, a top writer with credits on Get Shorty and Out of Sight. It's another neo-noir about a young man who missteps and turns to crime, but with a big difference -- the leading character is partially brain damaged. He has difficulties holding down the routine of a daily life, let alone dealing with the manipulative thieves that enlist his help in robbing a bank. Scott Frank grabs our attention with characters that seem to matter. Just when you think that the caper genre has been done to death, The Lookout gives it a new spin.
The Lookout is as refreshing as thrillers get. Its theatrical run came and went quickly, probably because it had no big stars to sell. Jeff Daniels is the only really familiar face but it's logical to expect that we'll be seeing much more from several cast members, especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Actors have traditionally attracted attention by playing mentally impaired characters, and filmmakers cannot resist using the gambit for instant humor and easy heart tugs. Chris Pratt's condition is a crushing debility and nothing more. He fills a notebook with constant reminders but still cannot keep a straight thought in his head or hold a specific memory for more than a few minutes. Chris must remind himself to use soap when he showers and to not lock his keys in his car. His attempts to cook fall apart because he can't find a can opener. Worse, the injury causes Chris to blurt out what he's thinking at awkward times, as when he sees a pretty girl in a bar. And he's haunted by guilt for the car accident that killed two of his friends and blighted his life.
Film noir overflows with stories of basically good guys that become entrapped in crime, and screenwriters have used every notion to motivate their bad judgment, like falling hard for a dangerous woman. Chris Pratt doesn't have to lose his head because he barely has control of it in the first place. He's easily manipulated by Matthew Goode's charismatic Gary Spargo. With Luvlee throwing him further off balance, Chris is soon convinced that neither his employers nor his parents are on his side, and that his self-interest will best be served if he takes steps to steal a lot of money.
Scott Frank knows just what buttons to push to keep us concerned for his leading character. Deputy Ted (Sergio Di Zio) drops by the lonely bank at midnight with donuts and a smile. Ted would be a good buddy if Chris weren't aware that he was playing babysitter. Roommate Lewis makes plans for them to open a restaurant together, which seems a stretch considering that Chris has difficulty making change. A calming influence, Lewis advises Chris to learn his sequencing exercises backwards. Chris is incapable of playing chess because he can't think more than one move ahead. If he could visualize the consequences of his actions, he'd never get involved with Gary's bank robbers. The only thing on Chris's side is that nobody thinks him capable of pulling off a crime.
The last half hour of The Lookout spins new twists on the caper thriller, keeping us way off balance. Matthew Goode is excellent as the talented creep who finds it only too easy to secure Chris's cooperation. The robbery goes awry but not in any expected way, and for a few hours Chris ends up with the stolen loot. Luckily for Chris, he listened when Gary drilled him with the line, "Whoever has the money has the power." Can Chris hold his head together long enough to come out with a full skin?
The Lookout is directed with an eye for arresting visuals; we get a nice feel for the cold Kansas winter and the contrast between Gary's farmhouse hideout and Chris' family home. We can tell that Scott Frank has us hooked because we pick up on his background cues about the pre-accident Chris, the carefree hockey star that Chris wants to be again. That younger kid doesn't always sound like such a nice guy, and we end up preferring the new Chris more.
Miramax's DVD of The Lookout has a good commentary and two interesting featurettes. Scott Frank and cameraman Alar Kivilo fill the commentary track with production detail, surprising us with the information that the show was filmed with a new Panavision digital camera. The rich images are indistinguishable from film, even when shot in available light. A making-of featurette uses about 21 minutes to cover the story of writer Frank moving his project from script to screen, while actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt talks about how he envisioned the Chris Pratt character.
The Lookout should be considered the sleeper of the year; it's highly recommended as an antidote to this year's empty summer blockbusters.
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The Lookout rates:
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