A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: # 24


2007, R, 116 mins.


Chris Pratt: Joseph Gordon Levitt / Lewis: Jeff Daniels / Gary Spargo: Matthew Goode / Luvalee: Isla Fisher / Janet: Carla Gugino


Written and directed by Scott Frank

In a time of witless formulas and brain-dead action thrillers, THE LOOKOUT is a small breath of fresh air in the saturated multiplexes for things that are not aplenty these days in the movies - namely a deeply fine-tuned and well written screenplay, layered and nuanced characters, and effectively textured direction that does not draw too much attention to itself.  Whereas too many modern crime thrillers are concerned with style over substance, THE LOOKOUT has its feet much more firmly planted in the ground of storytelling and characters. 

That's a welcome thing.

The film marks the assured and skilful directorial debut of Scott Frank, who may be one of the more undervalued screenwriters of the last few years.  He has craved out many memorable and evocative scripts for decent films, many which are marked by diversity of tone and subject matter (sci-fi efforts like MINORITY REPORT, satirical comedies like GET SHORTY, moody and stylish crime capers like OUT OF SIGHT, and inventive time bending thrillers like DEAD AGAIN). 

He has obviously learned a considerable amount from the pool of filmmaking talent that has churned out his scripts for the silver screen.  What’s most impressive about THE LOOKOUT is how effortlessly Frank is able to allow his low-key direction not overwhelm the story and personas.  Everything meshes together seamlessly into one inspired, involving, and fascinating character study and psychological crime thriller.  Beyond that, he is able to churn out two of the best performances of the year in Joseph Gordon-Levitt and a recent career high turn from Jeff Daniels.

You may or may not remember Gordon-Levitt from one of last year’s most overlook gems, BRICK, where he so confidently and powerfully played in its genre defying storyline.  He played a teen age sleuth that was smart and resourceful and he spoke in the type of snappy and spunky vernacular that had a home in the Sam Spade and Phillip Marlow noir stories of the past.  The film had a difficult task of asking its viewers to be drawn into its highly unorthodox storytelling and tone and buy-into a high-school-aged, modern teenager spouting out such tongue-twisting zingers like “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.”  The overall success of the film is owed in part to Gordon-Levitt’s star making turn that allowed a film that could have been a one note premise work and emerge as something evocative and memorable.

THE LOOKOUT yet again reveals Gordon-Levitt to be a young actor talent on the rise who seems to give one compelling performance after another.   Filmed in small town Manitoba (but doubling for Kansas) he plays a very popular high school hockey player Chris Pratt that – in an eerie opening scene – gets involved in a careless car accident.  He trashed his convertible into a staled combine on a highway, which left two of his friends dead, his girlfriend maimed, and himself mentally damaged.  Flash forward four years and we see Chris fully recovered from is near life-threatening injuries, but not without mental and physical scars.  It appears that his brain was unalterable damaged, so much to the point that he has short term memory issues, has difficulty performing the most rudimentary of tasks, and often is prone to indiscriminate verbal and temper tantrums.  All he wants is a life of normalcy and acceptance.

It’s anything but normal for Chris.  In order to get through life’s daily grind, he has to constantly write himself notes in his little pocket book, label every thing in his apartment so he won’t forget where things are, and so forth.  His existence is one of near-claustrophobic routine, which sort of paralyzes his ability to make new friends and get on with his life.  Part of this is self-inflicted (his accident has made Chris a fearful and cautious introvert), but part of his social uneasiness comes from his posh and rich family that keeps a supportive distance from him.  His only real friend is Lewis (played wonderfully by Jeff Daniels, always flying under the radar as a gifted dramatic actor) who is blind, but not too blind to keep a vigilante and cautious eye over the lad.

Despite his odd memory lapses and problems with everyday tasks, Chris does manage to hold a graveyard shift job as a bank janitor, which he secretly thinks is beneath him.  His down-on-his-luck attitude does now win him over with the ladies, nor does his lapses in memory (he hears a lame pick up line at a bar and – when he sheepishly attempts to use it later – he fails miserably).  Chris is self-conscious beyond belief, mournfully regretful about his troubled past and disastrous actions, and ultimately is a sad figure. 

Things change when he has a chance encounter with a suave, cool looking ladies man named Gary (a very good Matthew Goode, far removed from his British love interest he played in last year’s decent IMAGINE ME AND YOU).  Gary initially claims to know Chris and that he dated – for a limited time – his sister.  The two strike up a slow and casual friendship at the bar, so much so that Chris feels at ease with the mysterious Gary.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that Gary is the kind of frank, honest, and rebellious dude that he was before his accident.  Or, maybe it has something to do with the fact that Gary introduces Chris to his really gorgeous friend, a former dancer named “Luvalee Lemons” (Isla Fisher).  Amazingly, Chris is shocked to find out how easy he manages to score with Luvalee.

However, what Chris does not clue into is the fact that Luvalee is just bait…pure window dressing for Gary’s ultimate end-game.  Gary is a shady character to begin with, but his true colors are really revealed when he matter-of-factly discloses to Chris that he wants to use his knowledge of the bank that he woks at in order to rob it.  Chris, of course, thinks the idea is crazy and will have nothing to do with Gary’s plan.  Yet, Gary is a very smooth and convincing talker, and in the film’s best scene he uses his intuitive charisma and powers of persuasion (not to mention taking advantage of Chris’ fragile emotional state) to actually convince him to join in. 

What really emerges is a taut and fascinating exploration into button-pushing, psychological manipulation.  Gary is an evil SOB that clearly cares little for Chris, and it initially seems unlikely that he would ever join in on his dastardly plan to rob the bank.  Yet, Gary talks a really good talk and is able to capitalize on Chris' ever- growing lack of self-efficacy.  Chris is damaged goods, and Gary smells it on him.  All Chris ever wanted was some acceptance and a sense of of purpose.  Gary provides that to him, even if his methods and motives are highly suspect.  Predictably, Chris' turn towards helping Gary allows him to have a falling out with his family and Lewis, who is smart enough to know that Chris is in for some deep trouble. 

Yet, what makes THE LOOKOUT so transfixing is in the overall dynamic between the character interactions and relationships.  Chris is handicapped and is distant from his father, whom he thinks does not really support him that well.  Lewis is a friend and confidant to Chris, but his preachy life lessons grown tired and monotonous to Chris.  When Gary swoops in he opens up his rebellious spirit that he used to have as a high school jock.  Gary flashes temptations in front of Chris (most notable in the form of a girl – Lovalee – and in his articulate and somewhat logical manner that he is able to convince Chris of the relevant nature of his plan and his necessity of having Chris be a part of it.  Frank’s script patiently builds on the Gary/Chris relationship, even when it seems pretty obvious – early on – that Gary is simply bad news for Chris. 

The overall plot of THE LOOKOUT is somewhat contrived, but the expert pacing and terrifically realized performances by the actors allow for the viewer to easily become embroiled in the proceedings.  The sharp and finely tuned dialogue gives the characters weight and the ways that the actors play their parts with subtle and simple strokes makes them feel more layered. 

Gordon-Levitt, as stated, gives another soulful and endearing performance as a troubled kid that lets another man get the better of his fragile ego.  Jeff Daniels is fantastic in his small supporting role that is made all the more bigger by his affable charm and brilliantly underplayed delivery.  Daniels and Gordon-Levitt are an always-convincing pair on screen with considerable chemistry.  Matthew Goode, on the other hand, has the film’s trickiest performance in the sense that he has to play sinister and evil in a soft spoken and dialed down manner.  It would have been so deceptively easy for his part to explode needlessly into bad guy stereotypes.  However, with Frank’s expertly crafted dialogue, and Goode’s easy-going – but icy demeanored – charm, Gary becomes even more reprehensible.  He’s so casually mean-spirited and callous, and the way he uses his calculating and scheming skills is chilling.

With its nifty and strongly written dialogue, well-oiled pacing, complex and multi-faceted characters, and involving storyline, Scott Franks makes THE LOOKOUT (and his first foray into directing) a suspenseful and emotional work.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s calculating and pitch-perfect performance as a young man whose mental handicap is exploited by those in power above him is sad and endearing, and the supporting work by Jeff Daniels and Mathew Goode is equally strong.  More than anything, THE LOOKOUT is indicative of how character and story driven thrillers often work the best.  Instead of relying on manipulative and hackneyeyed plot twists and maddening story developments (like the most recent THE NUMBER 23), Frank’s film reminds us that – when all is said and done – small scall thrills and intrigue mixed in with characters of depth of real emotions allow for the most engrossing of dramas.  THE LOOKOUT is a crime thriller that is fairly atypical by modern definitions of the genre in the sense that it’s sure-footed and restrained focus are its chief assets.

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