How refreshing--a character study where the character in question is actually unique, complex and believable. A-list screenwriter Scott Frank (Little Man Tate, Get Shorty, Minority Report) has had The Lookout, his most impressive screenplay to date, in development for years, with big-name directors like David Fincher and Sam Mendes attached at one point or another. But it is hard to think of anyone who could have done a better job bringing this intriguing story to the screen than the cast and crew that Frank assembled after taking on directing duties himself.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (making quite a name for himself recently with unconventional star turns in this and Brick, last year's best movie that no one ever saw) stars as Chris Pratt, a once-promising high school athlete who finds his life irrevocably changed after a reckless but well-meaning decision leads to a car accident that kills two of his friends and leaves him with permanent brain damage. Four years later, Chris can take care of himself and get around in the world, but he is still far from the person he once was. He is prone to sudden fits of anger and sadness, stricken with memory problems and a lack of impulse control. He also gets easily confused, something that only exacerbates his rage and depression.
Chris has a steady job as the night janitor at a local bank and a strong bond with his blind roommate, Lewis (Jeff Daniels in a typically top-notch performance), but still he longs to be able to somehow recapture the heights of his high school glory days. No surprise, then, that Chris is more than eager to accept the friendship of local ne'er-do-well Gary (Matthew Goode). Gary sets him up with a girlfriend (Isla Fisher) and a new circle of friends--but these "pals" are actually Gary's creepy accomplices in a plot to rob the small town's bank vault. It's not long before Gary begins messing with Pratt's fragile mind and drawing him into his nefarious plot.
Frank illustrates the power that can come from a writer directing his own material by keeping the film focused on what matters--in this case, the characters. The Lookout is simple, cinematically speaking, devoid of flashy effects or bombastic set pieces. It is a quiet film, but an undeniably powerful one. The heist plotline doesn't even come into play until the latter part of the film; the first half is a slow but involving build that establishes Pratt's heartbreaking existence.
Once Gary enters our hero's life, he is clearly Chris' Lucifer, charming and full of temptations. He makes a somewhat compelling argument for his planned crime (banks are just giant, faceless corporations) but dangles the monetary gain in front of Chris as if this financial windfall will help him get back some measure of the man he once was. He pointedly tells Chris, even imploring him to write it down in the notebook he keeps to help remember the most basic of daily tasks, that "whoever has the money has the power."
It is easy for us to believe that a screw-up like Gary would think that material wealth could somehow improve Chris' situation but, all brain damage aside, it is odd that our supposed hero would fall for such a trap. But thanks to the complexities and layers of the persona that Frank and Gordon-Levitt have crafted, we know that Chris never seems to actually believe that the money will somehow make him whole again. He just wants to be able to do something, anything, that will make him feel a bit better about himself.
On the surface, it would be easy to dismiss The Lookout as just another heist movie with a twist. But this intriguing human drama is better compared to the underrated 1998 film A Simple Plan, or even the classic Treasure of the Sierra Madre in the way that it so captivatingly portrays ordinary people drawn into unordinary and evil circumstances. There are indeed elements of a thrilling heist picture (the tension of the entire last act is almost unbearable), but ultimately this is more about Chris Pratt than about any crimes Chris Pratt is considering committing.
'The Lookout' opens at select North Bay theaters on March 30.
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