Neo-noir thriller plays serious mind games
Directed by Scott Frank
Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher
It’s the quiet ones you’ve got to watch out for. Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for example, is one of the quiet ones. After five years of scoring effortless sitcom laughs on “3rd Rock From the Sun,” Gordon-Levitt unceremoniously segued his career into a string of fine indie film performances (Latter Days, Mysterious Skin, Brick). Gordon-Levitt’s newest film, The Lookout, is one of the quiet ones, too--a low-budget thriller directed by first-time cameraslinger Scott Frank.
In it, Gordon-Levitt plays--what else?--one of the quiet ones. Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt) seems like an unassuming young fellow. He lives in Nowhere Interesting, Kansas, works nightly as a janitor at a small-town bank and roommates up with a genially average blind guy played by Jeff Daniels. But Chris’ bland demeanor hides a wealth of scars, both physical and mental. Once upon a time, Chris was a promising athlete, the star of his local hockey team. One night, in a fit of high school high spirits, Chris unwittingly caused a single-car auto accident that left three people dead. Chris came out of it alive, but suffered severe brain damage. Now, four years down the line, he’s on prescription drugs, in therapy and saddled with a near total lack of short-term memory.
Chris’ biggest problem is that he can’t “sequence” properly. Simple, everyday tasks like waking up, taking a shower, getting dressed and eating breakfast become daunting efforts, simply because his brain can’t work out the proper order in which things are supposed to occur. He dreams of one day getting a job as a teller at the bank where he works, but it’s clear he couldn’t get through his current job without the detailed list of instructions taped to his cleaning cart.
Chris tries his level best to lead a “normal” life, but it’s obvious he’s still carrying an overwhelming guilt on his shoulders, replaying the tragic accident that killed his friends over and over again in his head. He maintains a good relationship with his one and only friend and roommate Lewis (Daniels), but the more we learn about Chris, the more we realize his life is lacking.
While hanging out at a local bar one night, Chris is approached by a scruffy tough guy named Gary (Matthew Goode, Match Point). According to Gary, he and Chris went to the same high school. Chris can’t quite remember the guy, but Gary’s confident attitude and friendly nature quickly win over the gun-shy kid. Before long, Gary has introduced Chris to an appealing young stripper named Luvlee (Wedding Crashers’ Isla Fisher) and is instructing the kid in the finer points of living it up.
But there’s something fishy about Gary. And, nice as Chris is, it seems odd that our gal Luvlee would be so instantly smitten with him. The other shoe drops when Gary casually mentions that he and his pals are planning on robbing the bank where Chris works. All they need is somebody reliable to perform the titular task while they blowtorch their way into the bank vault, currently fat with farm subsidies.
Now, any normal person would see this setup coming a mile away. Chris is being suckered and seduced into something very bad. But, as has been well established, our boy’s mind doesn’t work in quite the right order. He can’t see the end of this overly familiar tale, which obviously has him set up as the crime story’s prime patsy.
At the heart of it all, The Lookout is a finely crafted neo-noir--a welcome companion to films like Christopher Nolan’s Memento, Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan, James Foley’s After Dark, My Sweet and Stephen Soderbergh’s Underneath. But this one’s in no big hurry to get to the age-old plot mechanics of the double cross. Instead, writer/director Scott Frank (screenwriter on Dead Again, Get Shorty and Out of Sight), takes his own sweet time developing his characters, which makes the neatly designed caper capper all the sweeter.
For all its smart writing, sharp character drama and spot-on acting, The Lookout never fully transcends its roots as pure pulp fiction. It is, at the end of the day, a clever little movie about people getting seduced, betrayed and shot up with big weapons. Still, you’ve got to admire the film for sticking to its guns (so to speak). There’s nothing wrong with a good wallow in pulp noir territory--and The Lookout does it with quite the quiet intensity.