Scott Frank, who makes his directorial debut with SXSW’s opening night film, "The Lookout," is the writer responsible for "Out of Sight" (for which he picked up an Oscar nomination), "Get Shorty" and "Minority Report." "The Lookout" is very much a screenwriter’s film â€” one in which every proverbial first act pistol has, by the film’s close, gone off, every loose storyline unobtrusively tied up or tucked away. It’s not the way life works, but it’s a way movies can, and there’s something very pleasing about the way that "The Lookout"’s elements come together like a set of matched chimes, particularly when a certain narrative messiness has become endemic to indie film.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, who was once the golden boy of his Kansas City high school â€” a star hockey player with rich parents and pretty girlfriend. A moment of teenage recklessness and romanticism leads to a terrible accident that leaves him, four years later, just coming to terms with what his traumatic head injury has done to his life. His short term memory is unreliable, he has trouble linking cause and effect and the filter that keeps him from blurting out inappropriate thoughts is gone. He works as a night janitor at a bank and lives with his only friend, the frank, funny and blind Lewis (Jeff Daniels). He goes to a local bar at night, drinks non-alcoholic beer and fails to start conversations, until he runs into the charismatic Gary (Matthew Goode), who seems to want nothing more than to be his friend.
Gordon-Levitt continues to be one of the most intriguing young actors working today. Slight and pensive, he’s physically wrong for the part of Chris, but still manages to convincingly project the aura of a former local celebrity. The role is the kind many actors would seize on to display their range of studied twitches ("____ spent a month with real head trauma patients!"), but Gordon-Levitt wisely underplays it. His Gary isn’t off in a way that’s immediately visible, but he’s constantly poised, uncertain, like someone in a noisy room who’s only hearing half of an important conversation but is trying desperately to pretend it’s all coming through. In the moments when he relaxes and lets his guard down, he’s almost insufferably vulnerable. Goode, who’s never registered for us before, is equally impressive as Gary, a sleekly eloquent menace who seduces Chris with offerings of friendship, psychological blandishments and the fleshly charms of his stripper friend, Luvlee ("The Wedding Crashers"‘ Isla Fisher). Gary woos Chris into his band of bank-robbers, and we watch with dread, because, though we see much of the film through Chris’ eyes, we’re never quite sure of the scope of Chris’ understanding.
When, in the final act, events fall into place, they do so as smoothly as clockwork, with only the occasional grinding of gears (could we not be trusted to discern the meaning of the title ourselves?). It’s not an exhilarating film, but it’s a soundly competent one with flashes of sharpness that can illuminate scenes like the Hopper paintings that so clearly inspired the look of the film.
Miramax will release "The Lookout" on March 30th.