Lookout, The

Scott Frank, the accomplished screenwriter of “Out of Sight” (one of my favorite Soderbergh films), makes an auspicious feature directorial debut in “The Lookout,” a taut psychological thriller that blends effectively two genres, an insightful character study and a suspenseful crime-heist picture.

As of mid-March, “The Lookout” is the most exciting American film of the year. Receiving its world premiere at the 2007 South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW) over the weekend, the film will get a platform release by Miramax in April. With strong critical support, it could become an intriguing event of the spring season.

Though “The Lookout” has an impressive ensemble of characters and actors, at heart, it's an intimate two-handler drama, centering on characters that are misfits par excellence: a youngster who's brained damaged as a result of a bad car accident, and a middle-age blind who functions as his mentor or surrogate father.

That the “deviant” characters are etched in a multi-nuanced way without any maudlin sentimentality or judgmental mode, and that they are played by two superlative performers, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jeff Daniels, respectively, elevates “The Lookout” way beyond a generic heist movie in the vein of Tarantino and the Coen brothers, even if Frank's film shows thematic and visual influence of the above directors, specifically “Reservoir Dogs” and “Fargo.”

Though grounded in uniquely American tradition, in its melancholy tone and existential intent, “The Lookout” approximates a European film, not least because it's determinedly stamped by the sharp sensibility of its brilliant writer.

Moreover, integrated into the tale is another exciting layer, one of narrativity or storytelling, and the functions of stories in rendering order and meaning in daily lives. Boasting noirish, darkly humorous sensibility, “The Lakeout” is layered with poignant, self-reflexive voice-over narration by Gordon-Levitt, which comment on the story as it unfolds, looking forward and backward. (More about it later).

We always knew what a brilliant character actor Jeff Daniels (“The Squid and the Whale”) is, and here he offers yet another riveting turn in a challenging role, that of a tough yet vulnerable blind man who has found his place in the world.

But the real discovery is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who in this picture gives a breakout performance that should put him in the forefront of young American actors. A child actor, who had appeared on TV in the sitcom “3rd Rock from the Sun” and other films, Gordon-Levitt recently impressed in two roles, in Gregg Araki's “Mysterious Skin” and in the 2005 Sundance Fest dramatic entry “Brick,” which Focus Features released a year later but few people saw.

“The Lookout” begins with an exciting nocturnal scene, in which four youngsters are speeding their ocnvertible, chatting, making out, and even gazing at the stars-anything but concentrate on the drive and the road. They get into a near-fatal accident, in which two of the passengers are killed, and the other two severely injured. Details about the accident are delaued; they're shrewdly disclosed in the last reel, which recreates the traumatic event and its aftermath.

Cut to four years later and Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt), the driver of the car who in the wake of the accident suffers from a leaky memory and an unreliable sense of self. It's a tribute to Frank as a writer and director that the loss of memory and its implications on Chris's day-to-day operations are not used in a gimmicky way the way they were in Chris Nolan's “Memento,” a noir film that I admire for many other reasons.

Gradually, through brief yet resonant brushstrokes we learn who Chris isand was. Chris works now as a night janitor in a bank, but he wants to become a teller, an ambition that's initially dismissed by his boss.

Once upon a time, Chris was a Golden boy, an all-American athletic hero in his small Midwestern town (the film is set in Kansas but could take place anywhere). Back then, Chris had it all. A descendant of a rich, educated family, he was dating a beautiful girlfriend, Kelly, and had a shining future ahead of him.

A classic, near-angelic American hero who has fallen from grace, Chris has almost (but not quite) accepted his new existence, one based on taking notes for each and every chore he has to perform. In his narration, Chris says: “I woke up. I took a shower. I shaved. I took my meds,” and so on, all of which are written down in a pocket notebook that functions as a survival tool, and then some.

Chris exists in a strange, lamost surreal world, where the most basic things seem to fall through holes in his memory and nothing quite makes sense. Unable to make it on his own, he lives with his mentor, Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a wisecracking, fiercely independent blind man who refuses to feel sorry for himselfand for Chris.

Things suddenly shift, when Chris meets in a local bar Gary Spargo (British actor Matthew Goode, last seen in Woody Allen's “Match Point” as a rich boy), an old school acquaintance of Chris's older sister; they dated for a while.

Like Lewis, Gary is sort of a street philosopher, trying to look beyond the mundane life; it's the only thing the two men share in common. Gary begins to revive Chris' shattered confidence by inviting him to his wild parties, even helping him find a girlfriend, a stripper named Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher of “Wedding Crashers” fame). There is a wonderful scene, when Chris comes home one night and Lewis realizes immediately that he got laid, just by smelling a woman's perfume on Chris's face.

It turns out that Gary has “bigger” plans for Chris. Functioning as a Iago and Faustian figure, Gary manipulates Chris into a grand plan to rob the bank where he works. “Those who have the money have the power,” says Gary, a statement that becomes a recurrent motif and gets a nice ironic twist at the end.

Tale's third chapter depicts a bank heist that goes uproariously awry and unravels into chaos and gore. It's in these sequences that “The Lookout,” otherwise a most original yarn echoes Tarantino and the Coen brothers. The bloody aftermath, which is set on a deserted, snowy road, recalls “Fargo” and “Blood Simple.” Other parts of the story echo elements of “A Simple Plan.” These comparisons are not meant to suggest that “The Lookout” is an imitative work, but rather an effort to ground Frank's movie in a particular tradition of cinema.

In the last, emotionally satisfying sequence, with Lewis's life on the line, the young outcast, must figure out how to outwit and take down his manipulators.

But just as it seems that “The Lookout” cedes into a generic heist item, favoring plot over character, helmer Frank goes back to its original scheme, reaffirming his movie's more serious goals, which are both literary and existential.

On the surface, the movie posits an intriguing question. Can a man with a severely damaged brain–who can't remember even how to open a tomato soup can (I am not kidding)–become an equal partner in in a ruthless gang of bank robbers

But on a deeper, far more interesting level, “The Lookout” is more of an emotional thriller, one that bears the unique sensibility of a writer. For me, the film's touchstone concerns storytelling, or how stories help us get through life, how sometimes, it makes sense to start at the end of the tale and then work your way back to the beginning.

It's no accident that this motif is articulated-and spelled out-by Lewis, the film's smartest, most self-aware character, splendidly interpreted by Jeff Daniels.

Credits

MPAA Rating: R
Running time: 102 minutes

A Miramax release of a Miramax Films and Spyglass Entertainment presentation of Lawrence Mark/Parkes-MacDonald/Birnbaum-Barber production.
Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber. Executive producers: Laurie MacDonald, Becki Cross Trujillo, Jonathan Glickman.
Directed, written by Scott Frank.
Cinematography: Alar Kivilo.
Editor: Jill Savitt.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Production designer: David Brisbin
Art director: Dennis Davenport.
Set decorator: Stephen Arndt
Costume designer: Abram Waterhouse
Sound: Leon Johnson
Casting: Marcia S. Ross.

Cast

Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)
Lewis (Jeff Daniels)
Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode)
Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher)
Janet (Carla Gugino)
Robert Pratt (Bruce McGill)
Barbara Pratt (Alberta Watson)
Mrs. Lange (Alex Borstein)
Deputy Ted (Sergio Di Zio)
Mr. Tuttle (David Huband)