...a small-town noir that is more gripping for its subtlety than for its action.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

"Whoever has the money has the power."

Thank heaven for DVD. They give us the chance to watch things we might have regretted missing in our local movie houses. "The Lookout," a 2007 release from Miramax Films and Buena Vista Home Entertainment, came and went theatrically in such quick order, you might not have even noticed it was around. More's the pity, yet it's never too late to make amends.

"The Lookout" is a quiet, introspective little thriller, a small-town noir that is more gripping for its subtlety than for its action.

Kudos to first-time director Scott Frank for taking a chance on a film he wrote himself. Not that Frank is a stranger to motion pictures. He's the guy who also wrote the screenplays for such high-profile movies as "The Interpreter," "Minority Report," "Get Shorty," and "Dead Again." Still, to pursue a project not quite in the mainstream takes a certain amount of guts, and given the movie's fairly small budget, a certain amount of talent, too. More power to him.

The story concerns a young man trying to make a new life for himself, a very different life after having had it seemingly made. Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) was a high school hockey star from a wealthy Kansas family, a boy who could have gone anywhere he chose in life. But a stupid move to impress his friends one night while driving ended in a horrendous accident that killed two people and left him with a permanent brain injury.

We take up his story four years later. The brain damage has partially disabled him; he's unable to concentrate, unable to think or remember clearly, and unable to sequence events very well. He's taking therapy classes, but the only job he can hold down is that of a night janitor in a bank. He wants to be what he once was, but he cannot, and it frustrates him. Plus, he is guilt-ridden by the loss of his companions.

His new best friend and roommate, Lewis ( played by the always dependable Jeff Daniels), is a blind, guitar-playing ex-druggie, a free spirit with a sharp wit and an optimistic attitude. They were thrown together by the folks at the rehabilitation center, and he's the best thing in Chris's life at the moment. Lewis wants to open a small restaurant in town, and he wants Chris to help him. He also advises Chris that he'll do better by always starting at the end of things and working his way backwards: "You can't tell a story if you don't know where it's going." Good advice that will serve Chris well as the film progresses.

Just don't expect another "Memento," despite the superficial similarities. It's not that kind of story. There are no gimmicks here, just real people doing their best to cope.

"The Lookout" is ostensibly a heist film, because it isn't too long into the story before a crook named Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode, who is wonderfully menacing) persuades Chris that the world owes him a living and that he should join a gang of thieves who want to rob Chris's bank. The baddies go so far as to use a girl named Luvlee (Isla Fisher) to seduce Chris, make him feel good about himself, and make him feel he deserves better. Against his better judgment, Chris goes along with the plan. He will act as the "lookout."

Which brings us to the multiple meanings of the movie's title. Obviously, Chris will watch for any potential trouble during the nighttime robbery, especially watch for any interference from a friendly, well-meaning Sheriff's deputy (a pleasantly amiable Sergio Di Zio). But it's more than that. Chris must look out for himself, he must look out for further accident or misfortune, and, most important, he must look out for others, something he hasn't had much to do with in his hitherto privileged life.

OK, maybe you can see where some of this plot is going. Lewis smells a rat in Chris's new "friends," and Chris himself begins to have doubts about the robbery he's asked to do. Yet the film doesn't quite go in the direction you expect. The predictability you count on in a typical thriller fails to materialize, and by the very end, all bets are off.

Although "The Lookout" becomes quite tense in its last half hour, it's the time leading up to the climax that equally holds our attention. Even with a finish that may be too pat, there is seldom a false move along the way. As I say, it's a fine, quiet, little film, with echoes of "Memento," "A History of Violence," about a hundred good mystery noirs, and even a touch of "Cool Hand Luke" in the villainous henchman Bone (Greg Dunham). Good credentials if you ask me.

Once you get used to the filmmakers' color palette, I assume purposely subdued, purposely dark, and purposely tilted toward yellows, blues, and browns, you'll find an excellent image quality. The Buena Vista transfer engineers maintain the film's original 2.40:1 theatrical ratio (measuring out at a healthy 2.27:1 across my screen, given the television's small degree of overscan), and the high-bit-rate, anamorphic reproduction ensures deep blacks and fairly sharp definition.

Hues lean toward an iron hardness, just right for the noir atmosphere of the story, and there is a hint of glassiness to the picture that actually heightens the tone. There is also some small amount of light film grain in darker scenes, normal to print film and giving the narrative the added gritty look it deserves.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio on the disc is almost as elusive as the movie. At first, you don't think it's doing much except providing some clear dialogue. Then you realize there's more going on than meets the eye (or ear). The front-channel stereo spread is extremely wide, sometimes seeming to extend well beyond the main speakers. The surrounds carry an ambience enhancement in more things than music: you hear sirens, cars, doors, and helicopters back there, too. Finally, when the film calls for bass, it comes through in a deep, thunderously menacing manner. It's not the sort of sound that wins awards; it's just the sort of sound that perfectly complements a movie.

Three extras of importance: The first is the now-compulsory audio commentary, here done by writer and director Scott Frank and director of photography Alar Kivilo. They give us mostly a how-we-did-it type of discussion and why we did it the way we did it instead of some other way. It's one of those mini lessons in filmmaking. The second item is a twenty-minute, behind-the-scenes, making-of featurette, "Sequencing The Lookout," with comments from the cast and crew. And the third extra is a nine-minute featurette, "Behind the Mind of Chris Pratt," researching the problems of similarly disabled persons, with comments from the director and the star.

Things wind down with fifteen scene selections and a chapter insert; Sneak Peeks at seven other Buena Vista titles; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
As I mentioned at the beginning, "The Lookout" didn't do well in theaters, and if you see it, you'll understand why. Audiences want nonstop action and excitement in their movies. Instead, this one delivers credibility and heart, real people doing reasonably plausible things as opposed to comic-book heroes in pulp-fiction scenarios. The excitement the movie creates is of a different, more nuanced order.

"The Lookout" is a moderately paced character study more than it is an action thriller, so viewers should not expect another "Die-Hard" or "Bourne Ultimatum." Above all, "The Lookout" is an absorbing drama, all the more effective for its relative repose, and that's something I'm sure more than a few serious movie buffs miss about many of today's crime flicks. This one takes time to breathe and let us think. Kind of a nice change of pace, you know?


Film Value