Now See This #2: THE LOOKOUT
Usually if someone’s made something good it’s not their first time. Usually if someone’s made a few good things there’s something undervalued or underseen in their backlog. That’s where Now See This steps in.
Current Creator: Scott Frank, despite his reputation as one of the most dependable screenwriters and script doctors out there Scott Frank only released his second film as a director last week. This would be less frustrating if…
Awesome Thing From The Past: …His debut film The Lookout wasn’t so damn good.
It’s a bleak, cold world out there.
The opening frames of The Lookout take place during a moment of bliss. The last moment that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Chris Pratt will feel whole for an untold amount of years.
The next time we see Pratt he’s standing in the midst of a field of snow, the sharp lines of an austere metal building in an unnamed midwestern city rise up in front of him. He’s suffered a head injury, he has mood swings , poor impulse control and his short term memory is for shit. The cocky young man from the opening scene is gone, the fireflies have departed. He’s damaged goods. He’s on his own and though he doesn’t know it some very dangerous people have their eye on him.
It’s a bleak, cold world out there.
The crime genre is resilient for any number of reasons. As Dennis Lehane and Richard Price have noted it’s pretty much the last place in American Literature where you can tell a social realist story. Crime, by nature of its heightened stakes tends to be one of the few places left where you can tell a story that unabashedly tackles the big questions about morality, the nature of good and evil and existence itself. But it’s versatility that makes crime a truly unkillable subgenre. You can write a crime story about anyone, set it anywhere, crime cuts through all strata of society and class, crosses all cultures. Indeed that’s kind of the point.
Which is why my pick for one of the best crime film of the 00’s doesn’t take place in an urban environment, doesn’t involve gangsters or private eyes but focuses on a scared, damaged kid who just wants to be liked. Watching as he fights for his survival among a gang of predators, doing their level best to manipulate and discard him.
The Lookout was director Scott Frank’s first film and manages to have all the virtues of a “screenwriter’s film” while managing to avoid the pit falls. The film is grounded in character, takes its time to set up the scenario so that its hits really matter. It’s the kind of genre film that would be equally as entertaining if the genre elements never showed up. The Lookout has a disciplined structure but it is wily and unpredictable, there’s a moment about two thirds of the way into a film that deftly inverts an old character trope so confidently and casually that that beat alone should get the film taught in screenwriting classes across the country.
The film is something of an actor’s buffet with half a dozen meaty roles. It was Joseph Gordon Levitt’s follow up to his break out in Brick and he brings real soul to the part. Desperate and vulnerable, with just enough of his natural charisma showing through to make it clear how much he has lost. He’s partnered with Jeff Daniels for much of the film, who gives the best performance of his career, there’s a scene between himself and Ilsa Fischer where Daniels gives a monologue that’s resonates with that perfect, rare pleasure of watching a great actor absolutely connect with a great piece of writing. Fischer and Carla Gugino do equally strong work, despite Gugino’s scene being little more than a cameo, bringing shadings of sadness to characters who could have been one note. But it’s Matthew Goode, who plays the main villain at the perfect sociopathic pitch. The kind of guy who can get close and do real damage because he doesn’t come with his fangs out, who has half convinced himself that he really likes you. It’s easy to see how Levitt is drawn in as deep as he is, Goode has the kind of charisma that makes you want to be liked by him even under the best of circumstances, someone like Pratt is an easy target and he presses full advantage.
With a strong script and a first time director, it’d be easy to assume that The Lookout might be visually indifferent, but Frank draws an austere beauty from his harsh surroundings. While snowbound movies like Fargo and A Simple Plan turned the winter landscape into a kind of absurdist nightmare zone, Frank finds harsh beauty in the austere expanses, cut only by black of roads and the harsh lines of modern architecture. He juxtaposes his exteriors with an almost homey feel of his interiors. Cultivating a cozy warrenish feel; places the characters dash to and from as they try to get out of the harsh white world to somewhere safe. The editing is precise as well, subtly non linear, with an ever shifting soundscape emphasizing Chris’s sense of disorientation.
The Lookout is one of those films that gets its claws into you not through its narrative gymnastics or pyrotechnique set pieces, but through simple mastery of craft. By creating characters you get invested in, placing them in a story with consequence and weight. By treating it all like it matters. It’s a bleak, cold world out there. That’s why we have stories.