Sometimes a single event can change your life forever. In the film ‘The Lookout’ directed by Scott Frank such a life altering occurrence haunts the protagonist and forces him into a moral dilemma. This film is one of the best examples of the growing genre, neo-noir. It keeps true to the style and feel of the old black and white classics most of us have come to love. At the same time this is in every respect a modern film that fully explores the humanity of the characters. It is elegant yet simplistic; merging a tight script, excellent performances and one of the best directorial debuts I have seen in a very long while. While the story falls apart somewhat in the last act this is a worthwhile film. Unfortunately, that is not a statement that can be said very often. ‘The Lookout’ is basically a heist flick but it goes off in a novel direction. The addition of a mentally and emotionally damaged main character adds a dimension to the story that is engrossing, pulling the audience in almost immediately. This is the kind of movie that makes independent films one of the greatest sources of entertainment around. Unlike those Hollywood big budget blockbusters that depend on incredible computer created effects the heart of this film is the dedicated and talent group of human beings that share their love for the art of cinema.
As the film begins Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is like so many local teen heroes; he believes that life will always be in his favor and that he is invincible. This hubris is gravely tested when he decides to show off for his girlfriend, Kelly (Laura Vandervoort) and a couple of friends one night. While driving home one dark night he proves his machismo by driving too fast with the headlights of the car off. Laughter soon turns to screams when the car crashes head on into a parked combine. In an instant the high school hockey star is left seriously injured, never to play hockey again. The two friends die in the crash and Kelly is left without a leg. Although He recovers physically Chris is left with permanent brain damage that affects his memory. He now has to keep a notebook with him constantly; writing down everything to avoid forgetting it. Chris is also left having to relearn many of the simple physical tasks others take for granted.
Four years later Chris is still struggling with his disabilities. He has found menial work as the night janitor at the Noel State Bank & Trust. Chris shares a small apartment with a friend and mentor, Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a blind man with the dream of opening his own diner. Chris also has an ambition to become a bank teller but his affliction stands in his way. The bank manager, Mr. Tuttle (David Huband) wants to help but can’t take a chance on a teller who can’t remember most tasks. Chris is a very sociable sort of a guy. Among his friends is police deputy, Ted (Sergio Di Zio) who brings donuts to Chris and talks to him about his pregnant wife. One evening Chris stops off for a drink at a bar and is approached by Gary (Matthew Goode). Gary introduces himself telling Chris that he used to know his older sister, Alison (Janaya Stephens). In reality Gary is the head of a local gang that makes a living robbing banks. Later on they meet again at the bar only this time Gary is with a couple of less than demure young women. Also in the bar is a stripper named Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher). They all go back to Luvlee’s place where Chris exclaims that he would want to see Ms Lemons sans clothing. She seduces him much to his delight. When Chris tells Lewis about the evening he is suspicious of Gary. Gary invites Chris for a Thanksgiving dinner at a remote farm where he sees pictures of several banks including the one he works for. All Chris has to do is tell Gary when an armored truck delivers the money. Slowly Chris is pulled into something he knows is wrong. He is conflicted between doing what is right, his affection for Luvlee and his friendship with Lewis.
Scott Frank has made quite a name for himself as a screen writer. He has penned such films as ‘The Interpreter’, ‘Minority Report’ and ‘Get Shorty’. His script for ‘The Lookout’ made the rounds between the studios for years with such directors as Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg and Kenneth Branagh. Finally Frank decided to take the plunge and direct the film himself. For a freshman effort this film comes off amazingly well constructed. Frank has a great eye and visual style that holds to the tradition of classic noir. The use of shadowing is well done and adds to the overall mood of the piece. He also paces the film in such a way as to draw in the audience giving little glimpses of the psychological state of the characters. He did lose a little of the tightness in the dialogue that his other screenplays exhibited but for me that only added to the noir feel of the film.
Just about every role in this film is perfectly cast. In the lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, once again shows that he is now the reigning prince of the Indies. He has certainly come a long way from his wacky antics on television’s ‘3rd Rock from the Sun’. With films like this and ‘Brick’, he is cementing his ability as one of the best neo-noir actors around today. He plays Chris with an emotional control that is wonderful to watch. The audience can sympathize with the character without a hint of pity coming into play. Gordon-Levitt once again provides a complex view of his character that shows what a talented young man he his. Most people think of Jeff Daniels as a goofy character actor. After all he did bring fart humor to a new low in ‘Dumb and Dumber’. The fact is he is a very gifted, serious actor. In this film he plays a blind character convincingly adding to the emotional impact of the film. He is the perfect counterpoint to the bad guys offering a sense of morality to the conflict. Isla Fisher is just coming into her own as an actress. She is able to play for laughs or give her all in a serious role like this. Even the smaller roles are well cast such as the part played by the beautiful and talented Carla Gugino.
The DVD is presented by Buena Vista Home Entertainment in association with Miramax. As always, they bring not only the big films to home entertainment but little flicks like this that you may not have been aware of. The attention to detail here is top notch. The anamorphic 2.40:1 video is near reference quality. The color balance is true and well played. The Dolby 5.1 audio is hearty but never overwhelms. There is an interesting audio commentary track featuring writer-director Scott Frank and the director of photography, Alar Kivilo. The two go into the details of what it took to finally get this story to the screen. Also included is a behind the scenes feature, that considers the work required to sequence the film. There is a featurette called ‘Behind the Mind of Chris Pratt’ that looks at what it is to live with such a disability. In all this is one of the better films that have come my way in a long time. Get it and enjoy.