The Lookout begins with a familiar scene. A popular high school athlete, Chris (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is celebrating prom night with his perfect blond girlfriend. They’re riding in a convertible, a couple of friends in the backseat, whooping and carousing. Suddenly, Chris’ recklessness leads to violent tragedy.
Cut to “four years later”: former hockey star Chris is now in perpetual rehab. He’s estranged from his unforgiving and not incidentally wealthy father (Bruce McGill) and living with a fellow “gimp,” Lewis (Jeff Daniels), blinded years ago in an accident. As you might anticipate, Chris feels angry, guilty, and resentful. At home, he has to keep basic notes on life: labels on the can opener and his tinfoil-topped dinner when Lewis leaves it for him, lists of his daily appointments, say, with his counselor Janet (Carla Gugino). They meet in a diner, where he hugs her a beat too long and then comes on to her in an extremely awkward reenactment of his former cocky self; a former model, she explains her own dedication to helping schmucks like him: “After my head injury, I realized there were people in the world other than me.” That is, in case you missed it, the lesson Chris will be learning during this movie.
Written and directed by Scott Frank (best known for adapting Out of Sight for Steven Soderbergh’s direction), The Lookout gets at that lesson through a caper-goes-wrong plot, but that’s never nearly as gripping as watching Chris process it. And that is an especially good trick, because you are always a step ahead of Chris—forever facing “frontal lobe shit”—by definition.
The structure is indicated by a neat little device: for his class at the Independent Life Skills Center, Chris is assigned to write his life, that is, report the basic details of his day. “I wake up,” he writes and speaks in voiceover as you watch him do it. “I look outside so that I know what to wear. I take a shower, with soap.” And then you see his scar, reminder of his bad behavior, his burden. “Sometimes I cry for no reason.” Okay, we get it. He starts again. “I wake up, I get dressed, I take my meds. When Lewis is gone, I make coffee.” It’s not completely easy, the coffee-making, according to the fumbling you see on screen. But it’s a routine. It’s a step in his “sequencing.”
When Chris forgets a step, when his sequence goes off, he tends to yell. His life was supposed to be different. Lewis helps him think through the “sequence” he’s lost: “Don’t think of it as a list,” he says, “Think of it as a story,” he says, “You just gotta start at the end and work backwards.”
Jeff Daniels as Lewis and Joseph Gordon Levitt as Chris
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Chris
While the end might be easy to locate, the working back can be arduous. As the start of the film was an end of his former life, the rest of it takes Chris back to confront that cocky “big man on campus,” to assess himself in multiple times, to realize “there are people in the world other than” him. At first, he thinks these people are reminders of his previous life, a means to recover himself. You know they’re trouble, as the film tells you more than Chris knows. You see Gary (Matthew Goode) scoping him from a car outside the teeny Kansas bank where he mops floors. Chris thinks their encounter at a bar is accidental, that Gary really does admire him from their high school days, that the girl who comes along at just the same time, an (erstwhile) exotic dancer whose stage name is Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher), is drawn to him. Chris believes this because it helps him think his old self still exists somewhere inside him, that he can finally get over his rage at “living with being all fucked up.”
Lewis thinks otherwise. Though he’s happy to hear that Chris has finally had sex again (“You get a hummer?” he asks), he’s soon raising all kinds of cautions. Chris wants to believe his own story, but Lewis and you know that Gary’s plan to rob the bank is a bad one, that repeating the reckless self is a bad move for Chris. The thugs—who include the usual lunkhead (Morgan Kelly) and a very grim-looking shooter named Bone (Greg Dunham, channeling Lance Henricksen)—give him what he thinks he’s lost since the accident, masculine community and sex with a girl, as well as a crucial break from his routine. Apparently lacking the capacity for self-reflection on top of everything else, Chris signs on. And so, when he takes the next predictable step and tells off Lewis (“I’m not a gimp! I can do any fucking thing I want!”), you wait for the other shoe to drop.
The Lookout approximates Chris’ self-storytelling method, metaphorically leaving notes for you to follow what’s going to happen next. None of this would be surprising in the standard heist movie, and it’s not here.
This means Gordon-Levitt has a lot of work to do, convincing you that Chris is processing his ordinary experiences in an extraordinary way. And for the most part, he does just that. Chris’ awkward gait and puzzled face make his former life look long-lost and his current life nearly unfathomable. As you know, the rather heavy-handed theme is looking, both out and in. Chris’ slow climb out of himself is not exactly helped by the movie’s bloody retribution resolution with (no surprise), multiple endings. But Gordon-Levitt makes his erratic efforts to look at himself honestly seem quite complicated, a series of steps both typical and original.