The Theory of Chaos

Saturday, April 07, 2007

MOVIE REVIEW - The Lookout

Full review behind the jump

The Lookout

: Scott Frank
: Scott Frank
: Walter F. Parkes, Laurence Mark, Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum
: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher, Carla Gugino, Bruce McGill, Alberta Watson, Alex Borstein, Sergio Di Zio, David Huband

Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walks like someone concentrating on doing it properly. He doesn’t go many places on his daily routine, because he wouldn’t want to forget how he got there. He keeps a spare key inside his shoe, because every day he locks his key inside his car. He carries around little cards to give people, warning them that he may pass out, fly into a rage, or say something uncontrollably vulgar without warning.

As he walks around his snowy small town, trying to keep his rituals in focus, you also see a troubled aspect – he’s aware that he wasn’t always like this. Though a tragic car accident – scarring for him, fatal for some friends – left him unable to filter some impulses, there’s guilt and anger still locked deep inside. It is what spurs him to action in
The Lookout, a small character-based thriller that amounts to a successful test lap for a veteran screenwriter sitting in the director’s chair for the first time.

Scott Frank has been writing crime stories of both the psychological (
Dead Again, Minority Report) and just plain fun (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) variety for almost two decades, but The Lookout is his directing debut, and it may be he wanted to keep things simple. The climactic sequences feel particularly truncated. But on his self-selected terms he succeeds – providing atmosphere, a few nice shots to remember, and loyalty to his main character’s terms of existence. Working harmoniously with a mature, focused performance from former child actor Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock From the Sun), it’s a polished B-picture in the best sense of the term.

Pratt was a high school star for his looks, brains, and hockey prowess – until the night of the double date on the dark highway. Now it’s like part of his brain’s been scooped out. He carries a little notebook in which he writes narrative reminders of actions we’d do without thinking: “I wake up. I take a shower – with soap.” The campus hero now buffs the floors at the local bank at night.

That job puts him in the sights of Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) – who went to school with the old Chris Pratt and looks at the new Chris Pratt with a mixture of sympathy and veiled contempt. Spargo knows that, for one day in the near future, the bank will be housing an enormous amount of cash for local farmers cashing their subsidy checks. He wants that cash, and all he needs to get it is to convince Pratt to let them in and keep an eye out for the Deputy (Sergio Di Zio) who swings by each night with a box of dounts.

I rarely find movies interesting where every choice is morally black-or-white, and the “bad” characters always choose black while the “good” characters always choose white. We can tell that, even in Pratt’s state of mental static, he can sense it’s unusual for Spargo and his cool older friends to show such an interest in him. He can tell that there’s something a little too eager in the advances of the girl (Isla Fisher), whose name, “Luvlee”, ought to be a further tip-off. And yet, even before Spargo has unveiled his plan, Pratt is willing to taste what’s offered him, because he has a whipsawing relationship with his own self-pity and entitlement, and because he’s sick of the way his rich parents (Bruce McGill, Alberta Watson) drip out just enough financial support to offset any appearance that they consider him a lost cause. He’s sick of his menial job, the patronization of others, and Lewis, the blind roommate (Jeff Daniels) who’s his only friend.

We do root for him to make the right choice; and we do hope that, even with his drastically-reduced capacity, he’ll find some way to fight back as the plan goes into deadly motion. This is a tribute both to Frank’s creation of the character, and the innately-sympathetic Gordon-Levitt, who in his grown-up frame looks like a more soulful and grave Keanu Reeves. He plays well next to the shaggy and ingratiating Daniels, who has consciously embraced their co-dependence and handles his end of it with patience and unspoken devotion.

Frank has an attentive ear for self-delusion, and the choices of language people can use to conceal unpleasant thoughts that, without exception, make them all the more clear. Listen to the way that Lewis, on meeting Luvlee, dismantles all the careful lies she’s told herself in order to participate in this scheme.

Most Hollywood movies succumb to the pressure to make everything bigger – bigger amounts of money, bigger body counts, bigger cities, even bigger biographies for its characters. The Lookout goes the opposite route – its characters aren’t ever likely to make any splash bigger than this town they live in, and most of the violence is implied in the face of the dark and inscrutable Bone (Greg Dunham), Spargo’s heavy man with the appropriately-skeletal features. There’s nothing new or unusual about how they intend to rob the bank, and nothing particularly complex about Pratt’s attempts to escape their intentions towards him, which results in the aforementioned brief climax. But The Lookout is under the direction of a storyteller that doesn’t have any of the usually-genetic disdain Hollywood shows for small towns and small dreams – notice how “Deputy Donut” turns out to be a very capable policeman underneath his shrugging geniality – and who is smart enough to remember that his hero couldn’t plan anything more complicated anyway.


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