The Screening Room: The Lookout

In All, Movies by Kyu

This is very annoying. I could have sworn I first saw 2007’s The Lookout after reading a very favorable Roger Ebert review, but I can’t find the review online or in his archives. Maybe I’m just imagining things, because this is precisely the kind of small, well-written, interesting film that he would have enjoyed and that I only would have stumbled across thanks to his championing it. Perhaps it’s been lost to the aether? At any rate, The Lookout is still a fine film that deserves to be seen. This is The Screening Room. Welcome.

It’s not a great movie, but it ends up being a very involving one, thanks to strong fundamentals: clear direction, good characterization, and a unique concept taken seriously. When movies these days sometimes have trouble making you care about the destruction of cities and the deaths of thousands, The Lookout makes you care very much about, among others, a janitor, a blind man, and a local cop so folksy he delivers donuts on the beat instead of eating them.

The janitor is a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt, fresh off of his teenage performance in Rian Johnson’s Brick the previous year. He plays Chris Pratt (nothing to do with the star of the same name, I’m sure), a kid who was once a star hockey player and one of the most popular guys in high school, until he caused a devastating car accident that left him with brain damage. Now he has trouble sequencing events, can’t control his anger or guilt, can’t play chess any longer. The movie takes his perspective throughout, and it’s a sad and sobering one; Chris feels trapped by both the low expectations of the people who look down on him (that his boss thinks him incapable of moving up is bad; that his father thinks him incapable of anything is worse) and the awful pity of those who are sympathetic. His only real friend is an abrasive blind man, played by Jeff Daniels, a character with far more depth than is initially apparent. They live together, and Chris goes to remedial classes, and at night he cleans a bank… the very bank that his new friend Gary wants to rob.

More about the plot I will not say, except that it manages to thrill without sensationalizing. The film doesn’t raise the stakes very high (it doesn’t turn into a Michael Mann movie), it just puts in the work to make you care about these stakes, these people, this small but terrible situation. The film neatly builds our image of Chris as someone who has trouble simply functioning normally, and then gets him in water that would be over anybody’s head. Aside from the underlined themes about redemption, learning from your mistakes, the way traumas define (and are defined by us) and the effort it takes just to get up every day and function, there are some more subtle ideas at play here. In a way, Pratt’s accident has knocked him backwards into a less mature age, a high schooler’s mindset where he has trouble making good decisions and telling his friends from his enemies. It’s though he has to grow up all over again, relearning the lessons which, if he knew them once, were knocked out of his head along with everything else he can’t do anymore. “Whoever has the money has the power,” the film repeats, but power isn’t something you can steal or be given. It’s something you find in yourself, one step at a time.

The Lookout is the first directorial effort of Scott Frank, a screenwriter who was previously responsible for Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and (as co-writer) Minority Report, and went on to write and direct the well-received A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014). Those were all adaptations of existing books, however; The Lookout is Frank’s original vision, and he shows care and restraint in both the script and the direction. The result is a tense, moving, engrossing film that earns its earnestness, that eschews cheap thrills and clever cinematography in favor of solid, functional work, that presents a complete and satisfying short story in just over 90 minutes. If you haven’t seen it, and if this interests you at all, I urge you to check it out. It’s a good little movie.