“THE LOOKOUT” is a writer’s thriller. True, it’s cleanly and efficiently directed, and it showcases some crackerjack acting, but the reason it’s a real pleasure to watch is that a writer’s sensibility is the foundation everything is built on.
It doesn’t hurt, of course, that the writer in question is Scott Frank, here making his directing debut. Frank’s credits include the notable adaptations “Get Shorty” and “Out of Sight,” and when he has one of his characters say, “everything is a story, stories help us make sense of the world,” you know he believes every word.
Frank has come up with an involving twist on traditional thriller material, but what makes “The Lookout” distinctive is its strong sense of character. It’s that uncommon genre film that has invested time and skill in creating convincing, carefully constructed personalities. And not just one or two but some half a dozen.
That in turn has led to a series of eye-catching performances from high-caliber folks like star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher and Carla Gugino. The characters they play may have started as genre types, but by the time Frank and the cast have done their work, they have both texture and individuality.
A prologue introduces Gordon-Levitt’s Chris Pratt at what began as one of the peak events of his young life: He’s driving his beautiful girlfriend (Gugina) and another couple out into the Kansas countryside late at night to see a gorgeous display of mating fireflies.
But the unexpected happens, as it often does in thrillers, and, as someone later says, “you woke up this other guy.” A head injury caused by a terrible accident turns Chris, the golden-boy high school athlete, into a person we immediately sense, just by hearing the change in Gordon-Levitt’s voice, could not be more different.
The new Chris is a slower, more damaged individual. He easily gets frustrated, confused and angry, he sometimes cries for no reason, he’s prone to blurting out inappropriate comments and, like Guy Pearce’s character in “Memento,” he needs to write everything down if he’s to have even a prayer of remembering it.
Someone like Chris can’t be allowed to live alone, especially in the small town of Noel, Kan., where he works as the night janitor for a shoebox-sized bank. His roommate turns out to be “The Lookout’s” most unexpected character, a sarcastic, outlandish blind man named Lewis (Daniels) who wears porkpie hats and jokes about things like having “a gimp’s night out.”
As his knockout work in “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “The Squid and the Whale” demonstrated, Daniels is having a second coming as a mature actor. His ability to fully inhabit unanticipated characters underlines a gift for breathing vivid life into whatever he turns his hand to that is not used nearly often enough.
Though Daniels’ success is not a surprise, what Goode does with Gary Spargo is. A classically trained British actor who played Scarlett Johansson’s fiance in Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” Goode is eerily compelling as an American smooth talker who chats up our lonely protagonist in a local bar and adroitly takes advantage of him in ways the audience senses well before Chris does.
It’s through Gary that Chris meets Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher, not at all the way she was in “Wedding Crashers”), a part-time exotic dancer whose relationship with Chris surprises first him and then herself.
Also notable in this well-cast film (credit Marcia S. Ross) are Sergio Di Zio as the genial Deputy Ted and Greg Dunham as the wordless, menacing Bone. Blending beautifully with them all is Gordon-Levitt, once in TV’s “3rd Rock From The Sun,” whose quiet, unaffectedly sympathetic performance allows us to meet Chris very much on his own terms.
Working with cinematographer Alar Kivilo (“A Simple Plan,” “The Ice Harvest”), writer-director Frank creates a bleak but somehow homespun world for his characters, an effective homage to the kind of small-scale thrillers we never forget. We can’t avoid knowing where “The Lookout” is headed, but we are so deep inside its characters’ heads that we wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
“The Lookout.” MPAA rating: R for language, some violence and sexual content. Running time: 1 hour, 39 minutes. In general release.