A fresh take on a well-worn genre—the bank heist movie—infuses unexpected humor from Jeff Daniels’ brilliantly modulated performance as Lewis, a blind companion to Chris Pratt’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) mentally challenged bank janitor. Writer/director Scott Frank (screenwriter on Out of Sight and Minority Report) perfectly balances unpredictable plot twists with emotional pangs as car crash victim Chris tries to negotiate a normal small-town life in spite of constant memory lapses that impugn his sanity. A nasty gang of thieves exploits Chris’s vulnerability by making him act as a lookout for a robbery at the bank where he works as a night custodian.
High school hockey champ Chris suffers a traumatic brain injury when the car he’s driving crashes on a highway lit only by starlight. He’s travelling at high speed with his girlfriend next to him and a couple of friends riding in the back seat when he cuts off the headlights so they can savor the brilliance of the stars on a miraculously clear summer night.
The scene says a lot about Chris as a character blinded by his own romanticism. He loves the contrast of speed with the limitless dark beauty of the night sky, but he also relishes scaring his friends who yell at him to turn the headlights back on. Here is an innocently selfish boy doomed to be physically punished and emotionally haunted for a moment of blithe thoughtlessness. The scene is sublimely tranquil and yet fraught with excruciating suspense.
Several years later, Chris is a walking ball of dislocated longing and debilitating forgetfulness. He keeps a spare key in his sock as a safeguard against his recurring habit of locking himself out of his car. Meticulous lists guide Chris through endless days where a task as simple as opening a can threatens to bring his survival to a halt.
He makes inappropriate passes at his mental health counselor, and lashes out at Lewis, his blind roommate and mentor. Like a high-functioning autistic person, Chris struggles with social interaction. During a visit to a neighborhood bar, former high school peer-turned-smalltime-criminal Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode—Match Point) spots Chris and strikes up a “friendly” conversation. Sizing up Chris’ acute need for female attention, Gary seizes the opportunity to introduce him to Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher) whose phony name carries on her status as former stripper.
Throughout Chris’ headlong plunge toward victimization at the hands of Gary, Lewis is a recurring voice of reason. But it’s a Thanksgiving dinner that Lewis attends, with Chris and his wealthy yet apathetic family, which brings Chris’ back story to a boil. Lewis bears witness to Chris’ unbalanced familial reality, and the uncomfortable event marks a turning point for the elder Lewis to view Chris from a more fatherly position—Lewis dreams of opening a diner that he and Chris will run.
The fairly botched bank robbery that transpires is the centerpiece of the movie. Its aftermath tests Chris’ unique ingenuity of planning his actions backwards in order to save himself and Lewis. There are surprises here, and for all of the film’s apparent similarities to Chris Nolan’s Memento, The Lookout proves a much more entertaining and satisfying experience.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin) is the new Ed Norton; he’s an actor of nuanced subtlety whose careful choices are as transparent as they are visible. His contribution fulfills The Lookout as that rare character-driven movie screenwriters dream of creating, and then rush to copy after seeing it. It’s a gem of a movie that beckons repeated viewing. MTW