The Lookout is both a psychological thriller and a movie about learning to cope with one’s own mistakes. The movie feels like a novice effort, and indeed it is writer/director Scott Frank’s directorial debut (Frank has screenplay credit on The Interpreter and Minority Report, and he’s the sole screenwriter credited for Get Shorty and Out of Sight).
Frank uses the grammar of film a little too well. Things are spelled out a little too perfectly. It’s still a respectable independent thriller, but it could have been more fluid.
The Blind Leading the Concussed
R for language, violence, sexual content
As in Memento, our protagonist is living with brain damage, and he has some ingenious ways of coping. He always locks his keys in his car, for example, but because it happens predictably, he’s always got a spare handy.
Chris (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brick) was in a car accident back in high school (he caused it, actually). The accident killed two of his friends and scarred both him and the other survivor. Nowadays he has trouble putting his life into order, literally. He can’t sequence. He can’t recall what order things happen in. In Memento, that defect was brilliantly worked into the plot, but in The Lookout it’s just a character trait.
Chris was fixed up with his roommate Louis (Jeff Daniels) by a social services agency. Chris works nights at the local bank as a janitor; Louis takes phone orders at a call center. Louis is blind, but between the two of them, they manage to hold down an apartment.
The Crooked Leading the Concussed
The movie tells us pretty early that Chris is being played by some shady characters. We see them staking out the bank, watching Chris through the window. Later they “happen to” run into him at a bar.
There’s some good tension to be had in the dramatic irony; we know that Chris is in danger, and we want to shout at the screen to tell him to be careful. But because of his head injury Chris is easily led astray. This tension alone wouldn’t make a very interesting movie, and director Frank moves on to the main plot with the timing of a veteran screenwriter.
The main plot is fairly conventional; there aren’t too many surprises that an alert audience couldn’t guess. Perhaps that’s why I started looking for another layer of depth. As Roger Ebert has famously said, a movie isn’t about what it’s about, it’s about how it’s about it.
There is another layer of depth to The Lookout, and it has to do with the mistakes people make and the scars they leave. Like the rest of the movie, this aspect is perfectly written. If there were rules for writing subtexts, The Lookout could serve as the textbook example.
Louis is able to neatly summarize Chris’ problems putting things into sequence. (“Don’t think of it as a list; think of it as a story”, and “Start from the end and work backwards”). This happens right at the beginning of the film, and we know that the ultimate solution to Chris’ problems will come from accepting Louis’ sage advice.
And although Chris does have a physical limitation to overcome, he also has to overcome the emotional pain that came with it. The script (too) perfectly echoes this in the supporting characters. When Louis explains how he came to be blind, we realize why he’s the perfect roommate for Chris. A girl in the gang of would-be bank robbers is on the cusp of going straight, and we wait to see whether she will get scarred as well.
The cast is up to the challenge. Daniels lends lots of support to Gordon-Levitt, whose charisma and presence have to balance his character’s lack of power. The villains are all convincing without coming across as caricatures (Matthew Goode is excellent as the man sent to butter up Chris).
But the spotlight really falls on the script rather than the acting or the visual style. And the biggest problem there is that it’s too tidy — hardly a criticism. In fact, The Lookout is a decent little thriller that does a lot of things right.
But it still feels like a freshman effort, even if the freshman is an A student.