Judge Daniel MacDonald is on the lookout for Scott Frank's next movie after this solid effort.
Our reviews of The Lookout (Blu-ray) (published August 23rd, 2007), The Lookout (Blu-ray) (published August 15th, 2011), and The Yards / The Lookout (Blu-ray) (published June 2nd, 2011) are also available.
Whoever has the money has the power.
The Lookout marks the directorial debut of highly regarded screenwriter Scott Frank (who penned Out of Sight and Get Shorty, among several other fine films), and promises great things from its young star, 3rd Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt. A heist movie with an intriguing twist, does The Lookout stand out among its peers, or is it just another excuse for cool dialogue and a convoluted plot?
Facts of the Case
Having sustained a serious head injury in a car accident, which claimed the lives of friends for whom he was showing off, Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt) is left with severe impairment of his short-term memory, among other ailments, and a boatload of guilt; every day is a struggle for him. Living his life of lists and routine with blind best friend Lewis (Jeff Daniels, The Squid and the Whale), Chris holds down a job as a night janitor at the small-town bank.
After being seduced with the promise of friendship by the mysterious Gary (Matthew Goode, Match Point), and seduced into something else by Gary's gorgeous friend Luvlee (Isla Fisher, Wedding Crashers), Chris becomes embroiled in a scheme to rob his workplace and possibly regain his independence. But Gary might not be as beneficent as he seems, and Chris is in way over his head.
Kudos to Scott Frank for creating an original, engaging, and altogether unexpected riff on the heist genre in his first film as director. The Lookout focuses much more on Chris and the difficulties in his daily life than on the cool mechanics of how the robbery will go down; in fact, we learn relatively little of what the bad guys plan to do, and what we do know is refreshingly pedestrian. No slick, unlikely technology or super-smart and suave bank robbers to be found here.
In fact, the majority of The Lookout is an intimate character drama about dealing with guilt and restarting after a life-altering tragedy, made accessible by an understated performance from Gordon-Levitt. He spends most of the picture somewhat dazed, struggling to concentrate while trying to keep up a confident front. A number of elegant scenes let us into Chris' world from a variety of angles: re-learning life skills at a rehabilitation center; pitching his boss on a more challenging job with the bank; confiding in his maternal roommate; and fighting to be independent from his wealthy family's support. By the time the heist aspects kick in, we not only empathize with Chris because of is disability, but we understand his complicated mindset, adding tension to the subsequent twists of the plot.
Compared with similar films in the genre, the details of heist in The Lookout play almost as an afterthought: we witness almost none of the planning and only chunks of the execution. This might be a letdown for those looking for an adrenaline-fueled thrill ride, but Frank seems to recognize that we've seen it all before, and instead he focuses on the characters. The unusual choices work well.
Despite how good Gordon-Levitt is in the lead role, the film is nearly stolen away by relative newcomer Matthew Goode with the charismatic, magnetic, and dangerous Gary. From his first appearance on screen, we know he's not going to be good news for our hero, Gary's charm and sincerity makes us root for him nonetheless. I expect North American audiences will be seeing much more of Matthew Goode in the coming years, in a diverse set of roles.
The rest of the cast is as good as one would expect, Jeff Daniels bringing an immense amount of heart to his extroverted blind man Lewis, Isla Fisher charming as always as the femme fatale next door, and Bruce McGill (Collateral) adding an appealing and sympathetic layer to what might have been a stock portrayal of the disapproving wealthy father. Nearly every significant role has depth, with the exception of the imposing Bone (played by newcomer Greg Dunham), who's mostly frightening for how little we know about him.
The well-rounded characters are a credit to Frank's excellent script. While we're ahead of Chris as far as figuring out what's going on for much of the running time, which can be somewhat frustrating at times, the deliberate pacing goes to the heart of the story being told, and is largely what differentiates The Lookout from its heist picture brethren. You'll probably know where things are going, but you'll enjoy the ride nonetheless.
Cinematographer Alar Kivilo (A Simple Plan) has created a dark, rich look in keeping with the story's noir influences, and I was surprised to learn The Lookout was shot entirely on digital video—while a late action scene betrays some of the medium's limitations, I otherwise had no idea. The DVD handles the frequently very dark sequences well, despite being slightly soft in a few long shots. I noticed no edge enhancement to speak of, and little mosquito noise. Audio is low key, concentrated in the front speakers, so this won't be a demo disc for your new surround system, but music and ambience do open up the soundstage from time to time.
The special features set is pretty thin, with two short featurettes that are each about 50% clips from the movie; the majority of the balance finds the director, producers, and cast praising each other. Of the two, "Behind the Mind of Chris Pratt," is the most valuable, featuring Gordon-Levitt discussing the research that informed his approach to the character, with a few interesting tidbits between the expressions of praise.
An audio commentary featuring Frank and Kivilo nearly makes up for the dearth of other supplemental material, the two offering nearly non-stop tidbits of behind-the-scenes information, never committing the cardinal sin of commentary, that being simply describing the on-screen action. The two are candid about the compromises made because of time and budget, and are quick to point out what they see as flaws; The Lookout features one of the better commentaries I've heard recently.
While the essential plot is predictable, The Lookout feels fresh thanks to well-conceived characters and unhurried pacing. Scott Frank has been revealed to be not only a great writer, but a solid director as well, with this impressive first effort. Recommended.
Not guilty of being just another heist film.
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Scales of Justice
• Sequencing The Lookout
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