Directed by:Scott Frank
Having cleverly adapted a pair of Elmore Leonard novels for the screen, (Get Shorty, Out of Sight) Scott Frank can almost be forgiven for his dreadful work on novelist James Lee Burke’s Heaven’s Prisoners as well as the cliché-ridden script he generated for the remake of Flight of the Phoenix. Nearing almost two full decades as a successful screenwriter, he now makes his directorial debut with this heist thriller, based on his original screenplay. After just 98 minutes of crackling dialogue and mounting suspense, you’ll leave the theater wondering why it took him so long to get behind the camera.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a former high school athlete recovering from an automobile accident that killed two passengers in the back seat of his convertible, crippled his former girlfriend and left him with severe head injuries. Despite an affluent background, Chris spends his days at a vocational rehab center and his nights doing janitorial work in a small rural bank near Kansas City. Alienated from his family, (especially his hard-nosed father) Chris shares a rundown apartment with Lewis, (Jeff Daniels) a blind telemarketer whose gruff bluster masks a generous concern for his roommate’s inability to regain full control of his mental capacities. Unable to sequence the simplest aspects of daily life and emotionally awkward in his dealings with others, the former hockey star seems doomed to life on the margins, reliving, like Sisyphus, a night on the highway when his reckless behavior destroyed so much.
But someone has other plans for this physically battered, emotionally withdrawn might-have-been; temptation comes in the form of Gary Spargo, (Matthew Goode) an ex-con who introduces the attention-starved Chris to a wide-eyed ex-stripper named Luvlee, (Isla Fisher) and a trio of Gary’s friends who intend to rob Chris’ employer of two million in cash that’s temporarily stored in the vault in order to pay farmers for their annual harvest. Seduced both sexually and financially, Chris agrees to give Gary and his crew access to the bank and act as their lookout, but as the robbery begins, Chris has a change of heart which culminates in felony murder, kidnapping and a nerve-jangling climax that provides Chris with partial redemption and just the hint of further recovery…
Most crime thrillers are blessed if they contain a single outstanding performance, but Lookout boasts four of them. As Lewis, the often under-rated Jeff Daniels shines as a bawdy former meth-lab operator, robbed of his sight by the chemicals with which he toyed, but completely free of self pity. Ms. Fisher convincingly balances an obvious attraction for the confused and despondent Chris with subtly-conveyed signals of her devious arrangement with Spargo, Chris’ duplicitous former classmate. The British-born Goode evidences not a trace of his English roots as he mixes unctuous concern with artful sophistry, seducing Chris with a mixture of booze, tortured justifications and the all-too willing Luvlee. Goode creates one of the most profoundly vile thugs in recent screen memory, as terrifying as he is soulless. With this devastating performance to his credit, may this fine young actor find more work to display his superb skills.
The same wish can be devoutly made on behalf of Mr. Gordon-Levitt; with a pair of brilliant performances already to his credit in two small, independent films, (Brick, Mysterious Skin) this 26 year-old actor compares favorably with the best of his generation. He plays Chris as a subtle blend of confusion, defiance and lost innocence; the director and his lead never allow the character’s mental incapacities to cloak the film’s main character with inappropriate sympathy. Delivering a physiologically-muddled character with minute attention to the details of facial tics and voice inflection, Gordon-Levitt creates sympathy where one might least expect to find it, capping this taunt melodrama’s consistently fine performances, (which also include Bruce McGill’s effective turn as Chris’ pugnacious dad and Greg Dunham as the nearly mute Bone, Sprago’s shade-wearing, shotgun-toting accomplice.)
Lookout’s opening scene displays the director’s imaginative use of open spaces to which he returns from time to time as the plot unfolds, but veteran cinematographer Alar Kivilo isn’t given much else to work with in the film’s interior shots which are occasionally confusing. Luvlee’s conflicted motivations could have used a bit more exposition and Chris’ ending voice-over generates some unnecessary confusion about one aspect of the plot’s resolution; but these are small quibbles with an otherwise exciting and fast-paced first-time directorial effort.
The verdict? A memorable debut which combines spot-on dialogue with splendid characters in the service of an interesting approach to a familiar plot. May Scott Frank have many more opportunities to dazzle movie audiences as he does here.
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