Too often thrillers, in the hands of the wrong directors, make one of two mistakes. First, the pacing is too fast, the action too furious, which leaves the characters undeveloped and forces viewers to watch a series of things blow up. Or the pacing is too slow, the action too sporadic, which allows the characters to develop but leaves viewers too bored to care. “The Lookout,” a gripping character study directed impressively by Scott Frank, makes neither of these mistakes. The briskly-paced film, which features another stunning performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, starts off with a literal bang and never lets up … until the slightly deflated end.
The film’s opening credits give viewers a brief introduction to Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt), a hotshot college hockey star who’s got everything, including a gorgeous girlfriend (Laura Vandervoort). But a split-second error in judgment violently separates his life into “before” and “after”: Pratt crashes his convertible into a stalled farm combine. The resulting traumatic brain injury ends his career and his charmed existence.
Fast-forward four years. Pratt, now a night janitor at a no-name Kansas City bank, has no life to speak of: He has no girlfriend, his only friend is his sarcastic but kind-hearted blind roommate, Lewis (superbly acted by Jeff Daniels), and he has to record everything he does in a pocket notebook to make it through each day. His memory sequencing problems, mood swings and disinhibition make him reluctant to interact with anyone, including his well-to-do family. Into his gray world comes Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), an ex-classmate who meets Pratt at a bar and tells fumbling loner he once looked up to him – he even dated Pratt’s older sister. The serpentine Spargo plays on Pratt’s insecurities and introduces him to “Luvlee Lemons,” an eager, attractive exotic dancer (Isla Fisher). It’s then Spargo reveals his ulterior motive: He wants Pratt to help him rob the bank whose floors he mops every night. Set all this intrigue against the blank, colorless, obliterating wintery Midwestern landscape — captured wonderfully by cinematographer Alar Kivilo — and “The Lookout” becomes as chilling as it is captivating.
What’s more intriguing is the way Frank, a screenwriter-turned-rookie-director, lets his characters take their time whittling away at our nerves. Goode banishes all memory of his icky-sweet role in “Chasing Liberty” here. His Gary possesses an oily, slightly menacing charm: He’s got a near-psychic (or sociopathic) ability to read people, discover their weaknesses and exploit them for personal gain. And what’s frightening is that he’s a downright likable fellow, the sort of chap who’d buy a round for strangers at the local dive bar. It’s a layered, commendable performance. Creepy, too, is Greg Dunham as Spargo’s right-hand man – he has but four lines of dialogue and exudes ungodly menace. The kind that, if you saw him in line in front of you at Bi-Lo, would make you pick up and move somewhere far away. Like Timbuktu.
Daniels more than holds his own as Lewis, a wannabe restaurateur (he’s even picked out a name: “Lew’s Your Lunch”) who looks out for Pratt but never coddles him. His comic timing is dead-on (prepare to cackle when he tells Luvlee how he lost his sight), but better is his ability to show Lewis as a no-nonsense man who can peg a phony in a heartbeat. And Gordon-Levitt provides yet more reasons why he’s this generation’s finest working actor. His work here is unshowy and almost heartbreaking in its simplicity. As Pratt, he extracts maximum emotion from the character’s minimal dialogue (observe the wrenching clip where he tells his bewildered father “I can’t play chess anymore”). He looks and sounds like a man on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight of guilt and unfulfilled dreams.
Such commendable acting doesn’t disguise the frustrating flaws in “Lookout.” Fischer’s character does a disappearing act that’s puzzling. The robbery feels oddly out of place, since Frank spends so much time letting us know his characters. And the closing moments are too neat, too simple. Still, it’s not enough to ruin “The Lookout,” which is filled with characters who are anything but simple.