Once a hometown hero for his swift skatework on the hockey rink, Chris has since resigned himself to an interminable drive every night to an out of the way bank branch. He dreams of working his way up the ladder as a teller and perhaps one day boasting a job at the corporate office, but for now and the foreseeable future, Chris remains just a lowly janitor. Chris is left to his own devices in the middle of nowhere, with only regular visits by a local deputy, doughnuts in hand, and occasional phone calls from his blind roommate (Jeff Daniels) to keep him company through the night. Hopelessly misunderstood by his own family, Chris finds himself immersed in a new one when he's befriended by Gary Spago (Matthew Goode). Gary's sort of the big brother he never had, even fixing Chris up with an impossibly cute former stripper by the name of Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher). Gary does have an ulterior motive for palling around with a social outcast: he's eyeing a multimillion dollar deposit to Chris' bank that's been earmarked for Midwestern farmers. Gary needs Chris as a foot in the door and to serve as the lookout for the heist, and the tortured young man is just frustrated enough with the dismal state of his everyday life to agree.
In too many thrillers, the characters are almost incidental, not amounting to much more than an excuse to string together a handful of dramatic setpieces. The Lookout takes an entirely different approach, devoting much of its first two acts purely to characterization. It's a gamble that pays off. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has established himself over the past few years as one of the most incendiary young actors of his age, and his performance of Chris Pratt is immediately compelling. It helps that Chris' struggles with his memory and his reliance on his notebook -- even though it's an integral part of the character -- isn't treated as a gimmick or a plot device. Both Chris and his brain injury are written with a great deal of respect; these mental difficulties have become an integral part of who Chris Pratt is, and they're not white-washed over as the movie draws to close. This particular sort of trauma may be too abstract for the audience to wholly relate to, but what is truly torturing Chris -- loss, alienation, an inescapable sense of helplessness -- make his plight instantly sympathetic. I also appreciated the fact that Chris isn't blackmailed or naively seduced into agreeing to the heist. He believes he knows precisely what he's doing and what he's risking, treating it like less of a bank robbery and more of a "fuck you" to the world at large. It's Chris' way of asserting a power he'd lost long ago.
Although Gordon-Levitt's is easily the standout performance in The Lookout, the young actor is supported by a strong cast. Jeff Daniels is particularly impressive as Chris' middle-aged roommate Lewis, who's long since grown used to his disability and really doesn't pay it a second thought. Lewis never seems particularly encumbered by his blindness, and he can't resist the urge to crack a joke at the expense of those who mistakenly assume he's helpless. This serves as a nice contrast to Chris, who defines himself largely in terms of his handicap. Lewis serves as both surrogate father and moral center to Chris in a role that's more substantial than the usual routine of a blind character in a thriller; there are no Wait Until Dark theatrics or improbable heroics this time around.
Even with just a passing glance, Matthew Goode's Gary is clearly trouble, but he oozes so much charm that it's easy to see how Chris could so quickly fall under his sway. Isla Fisher is conflicted in the role of the reluctant femme fatale, with Luvlee silently struggling with her troubled past, enthralled with Chris despite -- or perhaps even because of -- his shortcomings. The love interest in this sort of movie is typically forced into a weepy monologue confessing both her sins and her deep and abiding love for our hapless hero, or she's saddled with some other dramatic change of heart as she's gunned down in the last reel. Luvlee isn't the usual femme fatale, though; the choices she makes are far more grounded in reality and much truer to her character. Ted (Sergio Di Zio) -- dismissively dubbed Deputy Donut -- is one of those well-meaning characters that would've been a thankless role in any other movie but stands out as something considerably more special here. I really found myself engaged by these characters, and when they're subjected to venomous insults or are spewing some out themselves, I was taken aback by how much those jabs stung. The supporting cast also includes turns by Carla Gugino (Karen Sisco), Bruce McGill (The Insider), and Alex Borstein (Bad Santa).
As written, the heist itself somewhat routine, but the strength of its characterization makes The Lookout's transition from a character study to a thriller much more compelling than it would've been otherwise. The film wisely doesn't try to catch the audience off-guard with a slew of twists and turns, preferring to unveil a well-constructed story rather than lob out illogical plot twists or a gimmicky, out of left field ending. Its lower key approach during the heist may disappoint some -- there's no overwrought drama or cartoonishly over-the-top heroics -- culminating in an ending that builds on everything that came before it and doesn't betray the story or these characters. There are even a few flashes of dark comedy as well.
The Lookout does suffer from a few fairly minor flaws. Considering that Chris is still reeling from his irresponsibility resulting in the deaths of two of his closest friends, mutilating and alienating the girl he once loved, and severe head trauma that upended his life, I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed that it goes unacknowledged when a second grossly irresponsible turn costs another friend his life. For a film that avoids settling into thriller cliches, the thug Bone -- laconic, exuding menace, and never seen without his trademark sunglasses -- seems like a cardboard cutout lifted from another movie entirely.
None of those negligible concerns dim my enthusiasm for The Lookout, a tremendous directorial debut by Scott Frank that snuck in under the radar at the box office but will hopefully have a shot at winning over a wider audience on DVD and Blu-ray. The film benefits from a strong cast, a script that emphasizes characterization over stock genre cliches, and confident direction with just the right balance of style and flair. Highly Recommended.
Video: The Lookout's high-definition release on Blu-ray preserves its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1. Even though the movie was shot primarily with Panasonic's Genesis HD video cameras, the faint noise in lower light lends the image a texture similar to that of film grain. Aside from one brief flurry of shots as the climax draws near, The Lookout is easily mistaken for a film shoot.
Much like star Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Brick, at least some of the inspiration for The Lookout is taken from film noir, and its interplay of light and shadow are accompanied by deep, robust blacks. The image is often blanketed in shadow, with the photography making frequent use of the limited light already on hand, and many of the particularly dark exteriors can be rather noisy. The AVC encoding doesn't buckle under the weight of the grainy visuals, and as is the norm for the exceptionally high quality of Disney's Blu-ray output to date, there isn't a trace of artifacting or other authoring hiccups.
The Lookout makes use of a stylized palette, casting its interiors in warm browns and oranges, while colors remain as cold and frigid as the snow-blanketed ground around them when the camera moves outdoors. Fine detail is at its most striking in those sunny exteriors, although crispness and clarity generally do remain reasonably strong throughout.
Audio: The greatest strength of the disc's 24-bit PCM soundtrack is the atmosphere it establishes, managing to impress despite the fact that there's very little kinetic action outside of the sequences that bookend the film. It's an immersive mix that's brimming with a strong sense of ambiance and directionality, bolstered further by a powerful low-end that reinforces the thunderous bass in score, the checks in a flashback to Chris' days of glory on the rink, and the handful of gunshots. The Lookout is a film that relies most heavily on its dialogue, and the cast's line readings are rendered cleanly and clearly without any concerns whatsoever.
Also included are Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks in English and French. Subtitles are offered in English (SDH), French, and Spanish.
Extras: The disc's sole high definition extra is the 'Movie Showcase', a three minute highlight reel compiling some of The Lookout's most visually outstanding moments.
The audio commentary with writer/director Scott Frank and director of photography Alar Kivilo is primarily technical in nature, reserving any comments on the performances and story for a pair of featurettes elsewhere on the disc. Among the topics the two of them cover are the film's deliberate use of color, the production design, how certain key shots were accomplished and where they were filmed, and the extensive use of natural light. Frank doesn't hesitate to point out some of the missteps he made as a rookie director, and he delves in depth into the many challenges he was pitted against throughout the low-budget shoot, particularly the tight schedule, constrained locations, and an unusually warm Manitoba winter. Viewers less interested in the nuts and bolts of production should probably steer clear, but as someone who greatly enjoys these sorts of technical commentaries, I found it to be a rewarding listen.
The twenty minute featurette "Sequencing The Lookout" opens by noting how the story came together, the influence of character-driven European thrillers, and the film's long gestation period. The featurette spends a great deal of its runtime on casting, with the actors commenting on their approach to their characters as well as the rest of the cast. It also touches on production design and location scouting, detailing how easily Manitoba stood in for the Midwest and the lengths the crew went to sidestep one of the warmest winters on record. A small army of producers are interviewed alongside much of the key cast and crew, and their comments are accompanied by a good bit of behind the scenes footage. A definite step up from the usual EPK and well worth a look.
The last of the disc's extras is "Behind the Mind of Chris Pratt". Running just shy of ten minutes, this featurette revolves entirely around Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance. Jeff Daniels and writer/director Scott Frank also offer a handful of brief comments, but the featurette is anchored almost entirely around Gordon-Levitt's thoughts, discussing in great detail his response to Chris' indefatigable spirit, noting the challenges encountered while playing this sort of character, and speaking at length about some of the people with head injuries he encountered throughout the course of his research.
Both of the disc's featurettes are presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen.
Conclusion: The Lookout is a solid character-driven thriller, propelled by another in an increasing number of tremendous performances by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. The selection of extras is somewhat light, but The Lookout looks and sounds fantastic on Blu-ray, and it's a film well worth discovering in high definition. Highly Recommended.