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Review: “The Lookout” (2007)

Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes measure of a life lost to a brain injury in "The Lookout."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt measures life lost to a brain injury in "The Lookout."

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. 

Grade: B-

Review: “3:10 to Yuma” (2007)

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and handles a mean shotgun -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

Russell Crowe waxes philosophic -- and wields a mean double-barrel -- in "3:10 to Yuma."

There’s a brief scene early in “3:10 to Yuma”* that cuts straight to film’s conflicted conscience: Outlaw Ben Wade (Russell Crowe) sizes up one of his holier-than-thou captors and remarks, “Even bad men love their mamas.” And with that one seemingly junkheap-bound line of dialogue “Yuma” reveals itself to be a different kind of Western – one where the villains are intelligent and adaptable and the righteous are greedy and downright foolhardy in their moral inflexibility. One thing is for sure: a run-of-the-mill Saturday morning cowboys-and-Indians picture “Yuma” is certainly not.

At the heart of this Western is Dan Evans (Christian Bale), a down-on-his-luck Arizona rancher who serves as proof that the good don’t always triumph. (Sometimes they even fail miserably.) Broke, weary and nearly crippled by a Civil War injury, he’s all but run off his land by moneygrubbers who want to cash in on the ever-expanding railroad industry. His oldest son William (Logan Lerman) and wife Alice (Gretchen Mol) don’t believe they’ll survive the season. Then Evans stumbles upon Wade robbing a stagecoach, and his luck begins to change. Soon, he volunteers as part of the caravan scheduled to transport Wade to Contention, where the robber will board a train headed to Yuma prison and end up with his neck getting intimate with a hangman’s noose.

The trip, of course, is far from simple: There’s a misguided attempt to pass through Apache-controlled lands, and Wade’s gang — led by the vicious Charlie Prince (an impressively menacing Ben Foster) — tries to free the infamous robber at every stop. It’s a nonstop ride of violent action and quietly devastating character interaction that trails into an unexpected (and some might say unfulfilling) end.

Ah, the end. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth has taken place over the film’s final minutes, with most everyone railing and wringing their hands in frustration. Of course, the conclusion will not be revealed here, but it must be said that the film’s finale is the key to understanding what makes “Yuma” tick. The end offers no panacea — its ambiguity serves a purpose, a big one, and it’s up to viewers to do the mental heavy lifting.

But the end is only a small part of why “Yuma” is such a worthwhile venture. As an action film, “Yuma” is surprisingly bloody and brutal. Set against the unforgiving dustbowl of the searing Arizona desert, the shootouts and mine collapses and top-speed horse chases seem larger than life. (Then again, that’s what Westerns are, in some small part, about — showing the truths of life in unflinchingly hard ways.) But with a small cast studded with high-profile powerhouse actors, the acting in “Yuma” is hardly shabby, either. Legendary Peter Fonda has some fun with his character, Byron McElroy, a mean-as-a-snake bounty hunter who’d just as soon but a bullet in Wade’s eye than deliver him to the station. Alan Tudyk, a wildly underappreciated comic actor, draws a few laughs as Doc Potter, a large animal vet who unwitting gets roped into Wade’s caravan. And a note here about that Ben Foster, who tears into Charlie Prince like a man in throes of demonic possession: What an actor this guy’s turning out to be. 

For the most part, Bale and Crowe run this show, and with good reason. Bale, known for taking darker roles, transforms Dan from a one-note do-gooder into a conflicted character, a man who chooses to do right not because he’s a saint but because it’s all he’s got left. Ben Wade is the kind of role Crowe, who excells at creating laconic, morally amibuous characters, was born to play. With his crooked smile and mirthful eyes, he’s near perfect as Wade, a crook who lives as much by his wits as his pistol. He’s equal parts venom and compassion, and he sees what so few other characters do: Morality is entirely subjective.

Though Crowe alone is almost worth the admission price, there’s another reason to give “Yuma” a chance: Any Western where there is nary a tumbleweed to be seen, well, isn’t afraid to take chances.

Grade: B+

*Readers who have seen the original 1957 film: How does this one stack up?