With fearless performances in Greg Araki’s poetically disturbing MYSTERIOUS SKIN, in Rian Johnson’s piquantly original BRICK and now in writer/director Scott Frank’s THE LOOKOUT, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has established himself as one of the finest actors of his generation. As good as Frank’s script is, and make no mistake, it is superb, it’s Gordon-Levitt who takes a tautly plotted noir and elevates it with a perceptive and intelligent performance into a classic.
He is Chris Pratt, former golden boy who in one moment of youthful bravado in a car late at night on a back road crippled the girlfriend he was out to impress and killed the other two passengers. Thrown 90 feet, he awoke from his coma with his short-term memory fried, a personality change, and a future that no longer existed. At least not in the form that the world expected from him. Instead of a promising career, he works as a night janitor at a rural bank, instead of a wife and family, he has Lewis (Jeff Daniels in burly mode), a blind guy found for him by the life skills center that is trying to get Chris back into the world as a functioning adult. Instead of his family’s pride and the envy of everyone else, he is an object of curiosity at best, pity at most. And from that family, with their strained congeniality, who can’t accept the new Chris because of the ghost of the old one that they cling to, it’s both.
Into that dismal life of lists kept in a notebook that he carries at all times, and a dis-inhibition problem that makes for some awkward moments, strays Gary (Matthew Goode), who sees Chris for what he is, not was, and has decided to make the most of it. Unfortunately for Chris, that involves the bank job Gary is planning, with the bank in question being the one where Chris works. Chris, with his neediness, discontent, and lack of memory skills, is ripe for the invitation to be the inside man for the job.
With carefully observed detail, and the visual cues to back it up, Frank creates the world through Chris’ eyes. There is the daily routine that is simultaneously comforting and stifling, the well-meaning people in Chris’ life whose very concern creates a boundary of lowered expectations that Chris against which he chafes with a resentment that he’s lost the ability to articulate, but not to feel. Gordon-Levitt has the ability to play emotions such that the audience doesn’t just understand it, doesn’t just empathize with it, it experiences at a gut level. When Chris, frustrated in an attempt to cook dinner for himself, goes from annoyance to full-blown tantrum in the course of a few seconds, it’s a palpable transformation with all the inner turmoil apparent from the moment he can’t find the can opener. The range is seemingly unlimited. In the few minutes that start the film and that introduce us to Chris before the accident, Gordon-Levitt indelibly establishes the old Chris, the cockiness, the brashness, the sentimentality and most of all, the light from within that bespeaks a confidence in the future that is assured. The post-accident Chris has lost that light, there is the dullness of second-guessing himself, the resigned flummox of locking his keys in his car, or delivering a pick-up line.
Gary plays to that, tempting Chris out of his rut by finding him a girlfriend with the evocative moniker of Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher playing against type, surprisingly sweet, even innocent). And by sympathizing with his frustrations with a dissection of his life using a spin that is not necessarily wrong, and then swooping in for the kill, tempting him with the money that will give him a new version of that old life with Goode devious and seductive as Satan himself.
THE LOOKOUT is a character study where the tension of who will do what and when and why is as taut as the caper when it finally plays out. People in various degrees of extremis are tested against their own sense of their mettle and the pervading melancholy that they wear like a shroud. But more, with a slick subtlety, Frank forces the paradigm of what is normal, and of what constitutes being able to function successfully in society. Take the criminal behavior of all stripes as a given. Consider the caustic wit that Lewis has settled on, the affable cop with a bad habit of not closing the door of his police cruiser when he drops by to keep Chris company and in donuts at the bank, as well as Chris’ own inability to tell a story, or to make a plan in chronological order. There is an inspired slyness that makes the audience second-guess itself the same way Chris does on a daily, hourly, even minute-to-minute basis. That makes this more than just an entertaining noir in the classic mold, it’s also one that’s worthy of respect.