Sunday, October 28, 2007

Start at the End

The Lookout. 2007. Written and directed by Scott Frank. Produced by Walter Parkes, Laurence Mark, Roger Birnbaum, and Gary Barber. Cinematography by Alar Kivilo. Edited by Jill Savitt. Music by James Newton Howard. Production design by David Brisbin. Costume design by Abram Waterhouse. Released by Miramax Films.

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Chris Pratt), Jeff Daniels (Lewis), Matthew Goode (Gary Spargo), Isla Fisher (Luvlee Lemons), Carla Gugino (Janet), Bruce McGill (Robert Pratt), Alberta Watson (Barbara Pratt), Sergio Di Zio (Deputy Ted), Alex Borstein (Mrs. Lange), David Huband (Mr. Tuttle), Greg Dunham (Bone), Laura Vandervoort (Kelly).

The Lookout is the brilliant culmination of screenwriter and first-time director Scott Frank’s work on such superior crime films as Out of Sight and Get Shorty. His protagonist Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is wracked with guilt from his high-school car accident in which he suffered a brain injury and two of his friends died. A former hot-shot hockey star, he has now been reduced to working as a janitor in a local bank, hoping someday to be allowed to work as a teller. He lives with the blind, wise-cracking Lewis (Jeff Daniels), both caretaker and companion. He has a particularly strained relationship with his parents, especially his father (Bruce McGill), and he lives with a deep sense of shame at his impoverished circumstances to go along with his remorse.

One night while drinking at a bar, Chris is approached by high-school classmate Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), who brings along former stripper Luvlee (Isla Fisher), who turns out to be potent sexual bait for Chris. Gary and his set of shady characters, mostly with the use of Luvlee, draw Chris into their scheme of robbing the bank where Chris works. Gary justifies this with a pseudo-Marxist notion of redistributing the wealth taken from farmers. Chris at first is reluctant, but after a particularly embarrassing Thanksgiving dinner with his parents, he agrees to be the lookout for their robbery.

Scott Frank renders this concise tale with a total command of his craft and an unerring ear for revealing dialogue that is as close to perfect as such writing gets. Frank’s work is quite remarkable in going beyond the lazy film noir archetypes that are so misused by lesser hands. Each character, down to the briefest roles, gives the sense of a fully rounded human being. Chris’ daily routine, his scribbling in his notebook to keep things straight, and haunted anguish are quite vivid and memorable. Joseph Gordon-Levitt cements his position as one of the most interesting young actors working today, adding to the great body of work he began building in such films as Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin and Rian Johnson’s Brick. Jeff Daniels invests his role with an effortless authority that impresses all the more for not being overly showy. The Lookout is the sort of film that is becoming increasingly rare: an accessible, entertaining film that nevertheless is quite smart, elegant in its construction, and containing fascinating layers that reveal themselves with repeated viewings. (Frank even cleverly includes advice to writers on constructing a good story, one bit of which I’ve used for the title of this post.) This film, unfortunately, did not survive long in the marketplace, being neither self-important Oscar bait nor a vulgar CGI-laden spectacle. That fact says all that needs to be said about the current impoverishment of American film culture. Hopefully on DVD it will eventually find the audience it should have had theatrically.

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