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The Lookout   B+

Miramax Films / Spyglass Entertainment

Year Released: 2007
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Scott Frank
Writer: Scott Frank
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, Carla Gugino, Bruce McGill, Alberta Watson, Alex Borstein.

Review by Rob Vaux

At a recent press conference for The Lookout, star Joseph Gordon-Levitt spoke enthusiastically about his role as a former high-school hockey player suffering from mental impairment after an auto accident. He talked about people's inability to live in the moment -- either longing for the past or anticipating the future instead of concentrating on where they are now -- and how it reflects on his character's frustrating struggle to lead a coherent life. His words eerily echoed those of another actor in a similar part -- Guy Pearce, who described his amnesiac detective from Memento in similar terms. The comparison flatters both Gordon-Levitt's performance and the film surrounding it, which turns a run-of-the-mill crime thriller on its ear by filtering it through a damaged (but hardly incapable) protagonist.

It isn't the first time such a trick has been tried (both Memento and Kasi Lemmons' The Caveman's Valentine have similar vibes), but rarely has it been for the sake of personality rather than plot. Those earlier films brilliantly exploited their heroes' damaged psyches in an effort to complicate the twists and turns of the narrative. Here, writer-director Scott Frank takes the opposite approach. The story is simple and straightforward, its goals obvious if not predetermined. But Gordon-Levitt's Chris Pratt simply can't see where it leads. He works as the night janitor at a Midwest bank, following the accident which killed a pair of his passengers and left him with permanent brain trauma. He can more or less function, helped out by a blind mentor (Jeff Daniels, great as always) who refuses to let him slide into self-pity. But the glow of his former life still haunts him, as does the horrendous guilt over the accident itself.

Then one evening, he's approached by a former classmate, Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), whose friendly demeanor and empowering philosophy give him a renewed sense of hope. It even helps him land a girl (Isla Fisher) going by the dubious name of Luvlee Lemons, but who seems thrilled to have bagged an ex-local legend. Naturally, it's all a come-on. Spargo is part of a gang that has designs on the bank's vault. They need Pratt to serve as a lookout while they tunnel in and take the cash. The deal stinks from the start, but Spargo can be very persuasive, and while the money from the job won't solve Pratt's problems, it can certainly make them a lot easier to navigate.

Frank cut his teeth by penning similar noir stories, starting with Dead Again and reaching a glorious crescendo with Out of Sight. For his directorial debut, he plays things cautiously: testing the controls rather than pushing them to the limits. His visual canvas -- set in small-town Kansas and created with DP Alar Kivilo -- evokes the harsh vistas of Fargo, as the blissful summer's night before the car crash recedes into the icy browns and grays of the present. Within that bleakness, the plot becomes terse and direct. The bank vault is a Mickey Mouse job, holding tons of cash from the winter harvest, but as simple to knock over as blowing a hole in the wall. Pratt is key to the robbers' scheme, but his part is not a difficult one, and the planning consists mostly of casing the place for anything unexpected rather than figuring out a way around any obstacles.

Without the clockwork intricacy that most capers command, The Lookout retreats into the minds of its characters, eschewing narrative convulsions in favor of more intimate dilemmas. Even then, it stumbles at points -- particularly in the case of Luvlee, whose subplot peters out rather abruptly. But those faults become easy to forgive once Pratt's damaged mind starts working, and the temptations of participating in the robbery battle against the fear that his new friends may be playing him for a chump. Gordon-Levitt delivers a deeply human performance, his vulnerabilities cloaked in a dark, resentful edge on which The Lookout can base its entire purpose.

Indeed, not only does it develop all of its characters extremely well, but it evokes fascinating suppositions by suggesting key details rather than openly stating them. Spargo, for example, is asthmatic -- a trait that has no direct bearing on the plot, but which implies hidden depths that enhance the proceedings considerably. (Did Pratt pick on him in high school? Does he still despise the former jock's long-gone popularity?) Other figures can command the screen without a line of dialogue to their name -- notably the robbers' fearsome leader Bone (Greg Dunham), whose stony silence is far scarier than the sneering bravado of his underlings. This is a man who knows the value of watching and waiting. When he acts, the results are gruesomely permanent... and neither actor nor director needs to embellish him to get the point across.

The focus with which Frank shapes these figures gives The Lookout its somber tone, unvarnished by gimmicky twists or turns. It's a plausible story about real people -- angry, fearful, and greedy, but also finding ways to transcend their shortcomings. Like every good piece of noir, its palate reflects the internal landscape of its characters, so richly realized that showy narrative stunts are unnecessary. Its relatively modest reach conceals a memorable crime story that refuses to be limited to genre alone. Screenwriting may be Frank's forte, but his director's skills here suggest a new career path... of which the quiet poise of The Lookout may be only the first step.

Review published 03.30.2007.

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