Directed by Scott Frank
The lasting image of The Lookout is a luminous, small-town bank straight out of an Edward Hopper painting. Inside is janitor Chris Pratt (not that Chris Pratt), using a mop to shoot urinal pucks into a tipped over trash can. It’s a balance between these character moments and a genuinely thrilling plot that makes The Lookout so fun to watch.
This is another crime movie but one in which the main character, Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is often made out to be nothing more than a helpless teenager. He’s a good kid who screwed up and pays for the consequences everyday. Four years after a devastating car crash for which he was responsible, Chris must live with the results of a brain injury that can’t quite eliminate his independence but certainly makes him rely on those around him. The injury has made him into a perpetual teenager, one who can only be trusted with so much and who yearns for the same time of freedom you usually see in coming of age films.
Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) identifies and capitalizes on this to recruit Chris into a plan to rob the bank at which he works. It’s something good guy Chris would never go for, but Spargo appeals to Chris’ inferiority complex, alienating him from friends and family and filling his head with ideas of independence and self-righteousness. It also helps that he has Luvlee (Isla Fisher) there to help sway Chris to his side.
Chris is a compelling character who at times pushes the audience away. We empathize with his struggle while trying to grapple with the idea that his youthful recklessness killed two of the passengers in his car. Because he must carry a certain burden following the accident, it seems we are meant to accept this as his atonement. This makes him an easy character to root for, mostly because the ego and recklessness which got him into this position is mostly implied and rarely seen. The Chris who opens the film is shy, earnest and having a hard time. Director Scott Frank establishes this image in our head first, knowing it’ll last, before he shows that Chris got himself into this position.
As Spargo rubs off on Chris, he becomes a bit of an asshole, to put it mildly. He pushes away his only real friend, blind roommate Lewis (Jeff Daniels, who is awesome in this), and he acts like a petulant teenager. He’s basically a good kid swept up by a local thug, and before you know it he’s headed down an unfortunate path.
So Chris’ character embraces his own unlikability without realizing it. In his effort to regain some control over his life he adopts more of those traits you imagine he possessed before the car crash which ended his run as the infallible, popular jock.
It’s around the end of act 2 when Chris decides things have gone too far. By this point he has let things get to a point at which they are already out of his control, if he was ever in control. We (and he) are inclined to believe that everything Spargo said to him, to soothe his ego, was a lie. This wasn’t some friend who wanted to push him towards independence but just someone else there to use him.
Chris falls to his low point. The people he mostly respects don’t trust him to be independent, and the people who would seem to insist on his independence only do so because they see him as a lackey. He has no real friends, and he’s lost all self-respect.
The Lookout turns this all around in the third act, with Chris learning how to make do on his own. After a fatal conclusion to the bank heist that leaves the surviving members of the team in tatters, Chris goes on the run with the money. Spargo and his absurd sidekick, Bone (Greg Dunham), kidnap Lewis in an attempt to negotiate a deal with Chris.
What follows is exciting and somehow believable given all of Chris’ own limitations, namely his struggle with ‘sequencing’ thoughts. The finale plays on a series of lessons given to him by Lewis, and it provides a thoughtful catharsis to the relationship between Chris and Lewis. It also allows Chris to assert himself, taking back some of his own identity and who he once was.
Yada yada yada, The Lookout is an effective little thriller. It’s exciting, heartbreaking and makes you feel good in the end. If I have one problem with the film, it’s a cheesy final image that shows Gordon-Levitt staring earnestly into the camera and a rushed through epilogue in which Chris’ narration tells us that he was let off the hook because the cops assumed he couldn’t be capable of taking part in a heist as elaborate as this one. While that may be true, most of the film is about Chris showing what he is capable of, that he should be trusted by the people like his boss and father who treat him with kid gloves on. He then shows the audience that he is capable of more than he could have imagined, but the epilogue sort of throws this away and lets him off scot free. His actions led to the death of a cheerful side character who I have yet to mention, so there should be some kind of consequences for his actions. Still, the story lets him off the hook.
Putting aside the final epilogue, which is still fine in its own right but just feels too neat for a story built on messier, vulnerable characters, The Lookout is a fun ride.
Up Next: Gerry (2002), Winter Light (1963), Elvis Presley: The Searcher (2018)