The Lookout

Director: Scott Frank

Although he’d discussed and worked on his long-time pet project, the screenplay for The Lookout with directors including Sam Mendes and David Fincher, it wasn’t until Academy Award nominated screenwriter Scott Frank (Little Man Tate, Get Shorty, Out of Sight) talked Michael Mann out of directing the film that he realized that he wanted to do the job himself. Explaining his creative mid-life crisis to Elvis Mitchell on KCRW’s The Treatment (see below: available as a free podcast on iTunes), Frank shared that he was in danger of getting bored and wanted the new challenge of controlling a set. Cinematically inspired by the visual look of 2005’s Capote along with the classic films of William Wyler (most notably The Best Years of Our Lives) and Dog Day Afternoon, Frank took the character of a young man with a brain injury, derived after a friend of his suffered a similar injury and decided to place him in a heist film.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt who is quickly becoming one of Generation Y’s most impressive actors with turns in Mysterious Skin (that seems to have inspired Ledger’s Brokeback performance) and Brick, worked on his role as Chris Pratt for roughly one year before shooting the film. As the film opens, it’s nearly black and white in an impressive visual sweep as Pratt speeds along a deserted rural road along with his girlfriend, best friend and best friend’s girlfriend all dressed in prom attire. Feeling that ridiculous and dangerous sense of invincibility and as Mitchell and Frank explained, the idea of “self destruction” meets the “American sense of entitlement,” Pratt switches his headlights off to show off the fireflies and ultimately gets into a car accident so horrifying that the two occupants in the backseat end up dead, his girlfriend is left maimed and he is left a shell of the person he was—the star hockey player whom the town constantly reminds was once great. Picking up a few years later, we meet Pratt as he struggles with everyday tasks, sequencing difficulties, and memory issues—everything from extensive labeling of items throughout his apartment to remind him to shower with soap, to writing down important things in a little notebook, he spends his days trying to learn how to live with his condition, rooms with a blind man named Lewis (Jeff Daniels) and works as a night janitor in a bank. Lewis serves an important function in a film that has the danger of becoming far too grim as the comic relief and Frank seasons the film with humor and surprises that turn what begins as sort of a younger version of Memento, brimming with more tragedy, into a fairly complicated heist piece as Pratt is befriended by Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) and Isla Fisher (Luvlee) who the audience and Lewis realizes are really using the young man as a pawn to get inside the bank. Literary but without pretension, the film seems to play out with a prologue and epilogue as noted on The Treatment with as Frank calls a two act as opposed to a three act structure consisting of his trademark as a screenwriter, which according to Mitchell is his “divided character” struggling with identity and self-destruction while another character (Lewis) serves as the voice of common sense.

With a nearly forgettable camera, The Lookout is stylistically impressive and aided by deft classical direction by Frank who uses clever blocking to keep his leading man in corners to heighten his sense of alienation and loneliness as everyone else dominates the young man, he told Mitchell that it proved challenging to make sure that Chris Pratt was a reactive character rather than an easier passive character and indeed he turns out to have a satisfying ark, as he must fight his condition and use the skills he struggles with to try and get himself and Lewis out of an increasingly complicated situation that audiences know will lead to foul play. Excellent, clever and unfairly dismissed by audiences—as of this review and research it received a national critical ranking on Rotten Tomatoes as 87% fresh (or positive), it’s a nice twist on an old genre and an even more impressive entry in the disability genre for its accurate, unapologetic portrayal of life with a head injury without once falling into an overly sentimental television drama or gimmicky film mold. Frank, like his leading man Gordon-Levitt, is definitely someone who just keeps getting better with each new cinematic venture.

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