The genre sometimes offhandedly called kiddie noir hasn’t produced a great many successes—remember Judd Nelson’s “Blue City” or Anthony Michael Hall’s “Out of Bounds”?—but in “The Lookout” it has one. Partially that’s because it has a cunning script and sharp direction by Scott Frank, and partially because it boasts another superb performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most risk-taking and intense young actors working today. And those are only its biggest virtues; there are plenty of others. Nifty in construction and savvy in execution, this is a twisty thriller that’s both cannily suspenseful and honestly moving.
In writing his original screenplay, Frank has taken a leaf from the “Memento” notebook for its basic premise. Chris Pratt (Gordon-Levitt) is a graduating hockey star in a Michigan high school whose reckless driving after a big game leads to a terrible accident in which two passengers are killed and his own girlfriend severely injured. Chris himself suffers brain damage, emerging from a coma to find himself frequently unable to remember things or complete everyday tasks. His wealthy father (Bruce McGill) has set him up in an apartment he shares with Lewis (Jeff Daniels), a wise-cracking blind man who has a job as a telemarketer, and Chris himself takes classes for the learning disabled while holding down a night position as a maintenance man at the local bank. But he’s frustrated by his inadequacies and haunted by a deep feeling of guilt.
That’s why Chris is so pleased to be befriended by Gary (Matthew Goode) a slightly older fellow he meets in a bar, who introduces him to a striking girl calling herself Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher). Unfortunately Gary turns out to have dark motives in making contact with Pratt, and before long Chris has been enticed into a caper that he’s initially convinced will give him the independence he’s lacking but eventually comes to have real doubts about. Without spoiling the fun, it’s fair to note that the plan culminates in a long, absorbing heist sequence that really manages to ratchet up the tension, followed by an equally intense and even more complicated scheme Chris concocts to overcome his memory problems in order to correct the mistakes he’s made.
The biggest winner in all this is Frank, who not only continues the streak of clever crime/mystery scripts he showed he could write with “Dead Again” and “Malice” and his adaptations of “Get Shorty,” “Out of Sight” and “Minority Report,” but proves himself adept at directing one, too. But he couldn’t have scored so handily without a strong assist from Gordon-Levitt, who captures Pratt’s melancholy fogginess and underlying sadness with perfect pitch, and who makes Chris’ last-act heroics credible. It’s another stunning performance in what’s becoming an impressive string. He’s supported masterfully by Daniels, doing his most engaging turn in years as the unsighted but insightful Lewis; their scenes together are very winning. Goode, Fisher and McGill are fine as well, as is Carla Gugino in a brief—perhaps attenuated—turn as Chris’ social worker. But the strongest impression among those further down on the cast list comes from Sergio Di Zivo as a garrulous, helpful cop—a character that also provides one of the film’s most shocking moments. “The Lookout” is further blessed with expert cinematography from Alar Kivilo, who captures the frosty Midwestern atmosphere so well that it adds to the picture’s chill factor, and a subtly unnerving score by James Newton Howard.
It isn’t easy to update an old genre successfully. Scott Frank has pulled it off brilliantly, and “The Lookout” is as crafty a film noir as we’ve had in a long while—even if it is in color.