Vet scriptwriter Scott Frank makes a more-than-promising debut as a feature helmer with “The Lookout,” a stealthy neo-noir drama that isn’t afraid to take its time developing characters on the way to the payoff of a neatly designed caper scenario. Set for a March 30 domestic rollout, pic could conceivably play even better in European markets where auds are traditionally more receptive to such muted, moody fare. Even so, favorable reviews and enthusiastic word of mouth could generate fair-to-good theatrical biz before “The Lookout” looks at a long homevid shelf life.
Given Frank’s background adapting Elmore Leonard’s “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” it’s not surprising to discern a distinctly Leonard-esque flavor to his tale of crime and desire. But this is a Leonard-influenced original with the humor tamped down — way down, actually, but still dark and biting — and the undercurrents of dread raised very close to flood level.
Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a Midwestern golden boy with everything going for him — wealthy parents, a beautiful girlfriend, fame as a high-school hockey star — when he almost dies in an auto mishap. A few years later, he’s still recovering from severe brain damage, often struggling with an unreliable memory and drifting through fogs of disorientation as he attempts the simplest tasks.
Employed as a night janitor at a small-town bank, Chris would like to become a teller. But he so lacks organizational skills that he often forgets where he placed the can opener in the apartment he shares with Lewis (Jeff Daniels), his blind roommate and mentor. Lewis is patient and encouraging, but also snarky and sardonic, and Daniels steals clusters of scenes with his dry delivery of droll wisecracks and comebacks.
When Chris runs into old school acquaintance Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode), he’s briefly cheered out of his workaday gloom. And that cheer is greatly enhanced when Gary introduces Chris to Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher), an ex-stripper quite willing to be Chris’ private dancer. But the coincidence of Gary’s reappearance in Chris’ life is more apparent than real. The raspy-voiced “friend” is part of a small gang that’s been casing local banks — including the one where Chris is employed.
As Chris finds himself torn between wanting to remain honest and needing to regain control of his life, he’s sorely tempted by the lure of ill-gotten gains. When push comes to shove, however, he has serious second thoughts. But it may be too late to do himself — or a couple of innocent bystanders — any good.
Shades of “Memento” arise as Chris labors mightily to remember how to complete actions that he begins, and there are more fleeting echoes of “Fargo” and “The Caveman’s Valentine.” But Frank works his own sort of storytelling magic with the slightly similar premise, firmly establishing Chris as a complex, guilt-ridden character — played with compelling persuasiveness by Gordon-Levitt — before expanding the arresting psychological study to encompass low-key thriller plot mechanics.
Pic is sensationally gripping during an extended latenight sequence in the bank, as Frank ratchets up suspense with familiar tropes and at least one jolting surprise; scripter is quite adept at planting early portents, and the Law of Chekhov’s Gun — i.e., never introduce a firearm unless you intend to use it — is acknowledged here. One complaint: A major supporting character simply disappears from the action, never to be seen or even referenced again.
Well-cast supporting players, including Bruce McGill as Chris’ tough-loving father, Sergio Di Zio as a friendly deputy sheriff and (briefly) Carla Gugino as Chris’ case worker, serve the story well.
Pic also boasts evocative lensing by Alar Kivilo (reminiscent of his wintry work in “A Simple Plan” and “The Ice Storm”) and an insinuating score by James Newton Howard.