Scott Frank has written some of my favorite movies, namely the adaptations of two of my favorite Elmore Leonard novels, Get Shorty (directed by Barry Sonnenfeld) and Out of Sight (directed by Steven Soderbergh), for which he received a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination. (He also wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg's adaptation of the Philip K. Dick short story, Minority Report, which, while I wouldn't call it a favorite, is a pretty good movie in its own right, despite its notable differences from the source material.)
Frank's latest movie is The Lookout, with which he chose to make his directorial debut after both Sam Mendes and Dave Fincher dropped out to make Road to Perdition and Zodiac, respectively.
As you can tell, the script for The Lookout had been around for a while before Frank finally decided that he wanted to be the guy to finally make this movie. He'd lived with it for years, doing rewrite after rewrite for directors who would eventually move on to other projects, and he realized, after Fincher left, that he didn't want to do any more rewrites.
The Lookout is the story of a former hot shot high school hockey star with his entire life in front of him. Unfortunately for him and his three passengers, one night while speeding down a remote, rural highway in Missouri with the headlights off, a combine is also in front of him. He swerves to avoid the huge piece of farm equipment, but is going way too fast. There's an accident. Two of his friends are killed and he's left with moderate brain damage.
When we catch up with Chris Pratt four years later, he's working as the night janitor at small-town bank and going to rehab classes during the day. He has trouble with his memory and carries around a small notebook in which he scribbles reminders to himself. One of his hands shakes and he walks with a limp. He doesn't remember the accident, but is constantly reminded of it every day.
Lewis is Chris's roommate, blind from working in a meth lab "before it was fashionable." Though blind, Lewis can navigate their apartment better than Chris can, and is quite impressive in the kitchen. The two talk about opening a restaurant some day. Chris's family never seemed to learn how to handle his new disability, with his mother wanting to coddle him and his father treating him like a child. They mean well, of course, but they reinforce the idea that because of his condition, Chris can't take care of himself, that he can't be independent, which is sort of the crux of the story.
Soon, Chris meets Gary, and the two quickly become friends. Gary doesn't treat Chris like an invalid. He talks to him like a man, supplying Chris with both self-confidence and a woman, an ex-stripper named Luvlee. For the first time since the accident, Chris is living his life instead of simply being alive.
Gary, however, is not all he appears to be. His friendship with Chris is merely a ruse. Gary and his friends intend to rob the bank Chris works at and they need an inside man. They need Chris to be their lookout.
Frank, as both writer and director, takes his time getting to the heist. He allows the film plenty of room to breath. We have ample time in which to meet our characters and get to know them before Frank pulls the rug out from under them, and therein lies the film's main strength: its characters.
Each person is fully-fleshed out and realistic, from our protagonist Chris to the deputy who stops by the bank each night bearing a box of donuts and tales of his pregnant wife. Frank's deft dialogue and directorial cues help create this world, and by the time the action starts we feel as though we have a stake in their lives.
The characters are brought to such realistic life by a great group of actors, including Jeff Daniels as Lewis and Matthew Goode as Gary, but the most impressive performance is that of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Chris with a haunting sensitivity, as a guy who can be raging against the kitchen because he can't find the can opener one moment and devastated by the pain the accident caused the next.
I was ridiculously impressed with Gordon-Levitt in the high school neo-noir, Brick. I was stunned, actually. This was the kid who co-starred in that dumb aliens-come-to-Earth sitcom? I mean, I thought he was really good in Brick, but after The Lookout, I honestly believe he's one of the best young actors in the business today.
The Lookout might have a relatively simplistic plot, that of "the heist movie," but it's the characters Scott Frank created who make this story new and fresh and worth seeing. Frank already had an established career as a top-notch screenwriter, but after this picture, he can add up-and-coming director to his list of accolades.