**** out of *****
“The Lookout” is a film that is ostensibly about a bank robbery. But unlike many heist films, the heist in “The Lookout” is a means to an end, rather than the end itself. The film is really about its characters; the heist is secondary.
The film begins with Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a popular high school student and talented hockey player, causing a car accident that leads to the deaths of two of his friends. Chris also suffers some brain damage from the crash, making it difficult for him to perform everyday tasks.
In order to get through the day Chris consults his notebook that contains basic instructions for living: get up, take a shower with soap, eat breakfast, go to school, etc.
Chris is also, understandably, wracked with guilt over the deaths of his friends. “Sometimes I cry for no reason,” Chris observes in a voiceover, though we know that this is not entirely true.
Chris’s job as the night janitor at a bank causes a man named Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) to take an interest in him.
Gary’s intentions, we eventually learn, are far from benign. He intends on robbing the bank where Chris works, and he wants Chris to act as the lookout.
Logistically speaking, Gary does not need Chris. His whole scheme to rob the bank might actually have been easier if he had used one of his own men to act as the lookout and simply disposed of Chris either by tying him up while they performed the robbery or by killing him.
But the story that writer/director Scott Frank has cooked up here requires Chris to face a moral crucible that will either change his life for the better or for the worse. Chris’s role in the bank robbery is that crucible.
Gordon-Levitt does excellent work as Chris, imbuing him with a seething-beneath-the surface intensity. Chris has few emotional outbursts in the film, and yet Gordon-Levitt is able to unmistakably convey Chris’s inner struggle as he contends with anger, confusion, jealousy and longing.
Scott Frank also deserves kudos for scripting and directing this modern riff on the old film noirs of the ’40s and ’50s.
Frank has updated the setting and made his characters a bit younger than those in films like “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), but his protagonist is just as morally complex as noir heroes like Sam Spade or Phillip Marlow.
I don’t think “The Lookout” is the “small masterpiece” as critics like Richard Roeper called it. It’s a skillfully made and wonderfully acted film (Jeff Daniels does great work in a supporting role as Chris’s caretaker), and it proves that films are almost always more interesting when they focus on story and characters, rather than explosions and car chases.
Movie reviewer Jeff Schwartz can be reached at email@example.com.