March 30, 2007, release date
Directed by Scott Frank
Screenplay by Scott Frank
Music by James Newton Howard
Edited by Jill Savitt
Cinematography by Alar Kivilo
Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Chris Pratt
Jeff Daniels as Lewis
Matthew Goode as Gary Spargo
Isla Fisher as Luvlee Lemons, the woman who seduces Chris
Carla Gugino as Janet, Chris’s caseworker
Bruce McGill as Robert Pratt, Chris’s father
Alberta Watson as Barbara Pratt, Chris’s mother
Alex Borstein as Mrs. Lange, the bank teller
Sergio Di Zio as Deputy Ted
David Huband as Mr. Tuttle, the bank manager
Laura Vandervoort as Kelly, Chris’s high school girlfriend
Brian Roach as Danny, Chris’s teammate and high school friend
Suzanne Kelly as Nina, Danny’s girlfriend
Greg Dunham as Bone
Morgan Kelly as Marty
Aaron Berg as Cork
Distributed by Miramax Films
Produced by Spyglass Entertainment
A word of thanks to Moises, who recommended The Lookout to me. Moises and I were classmates in the 2015 online class TCM Presents Into the Darkness: Investigating Film Noir, which was taught by Richard L. Edwards, Ph.D., of Ball State University in collaboration with Turner Classic Movies (TCM) and Canvas. Click here for more information about the class discussion board, which is still up and running, and about film noir in general.
If The Lookout had been filmed in black and white instead of color, I think I would have mistaken it for a film noir from the 1940s. In fact, one of the first details that I noticed on the screen after the opening sequence is that the main character Chris Pratt attends classes at the Independent Life Skills Center of Kansas City, which made me think immediately of the 1952 film noir Kansas City Confidential. Both films are about bank heists, and I wondered if the film’s writer and director, Scott Frank, was thinking of the 1952 film when he wrote the screenplay for The Lookout. He doesn’t mention anything about it in the DVD commentary that he and cinematographer Alar Kivilo provide. In any case, I will have to see Kansas City Confidential again.
The Lookout starts at grass-level: lots of color, specifically green, even though it’s night. Then the camera moves along and up, like a predator lying in wait, and catches the headlights coming toward it. A car appears, with a couple in the front seat, a couple in the back, speeding along a dark deserted road. The driver, Chris, is looking for the fireflies that come out at a specific point in the year because he wants to show them to his girlfriend. To see them better, he turns off his headlights. His friends in the backseat start to get nervous, aware of the possible danger, but Chris persists until his girlfriend gets nervous too and convinces him to turn the headlights back on. By now, the car is close to hitting a combine thresher. The camera cuts the sequence just before impact, the screen fades to black, and the words “four years later” appear.
Chris Pratt was once a high school hockey player, a sports star, out on the night of his high school prom with his girlfriend Kelly, his best friend and teammate Danny, and his friend’s girlfriend Nina. His drive on a deserted road and his desire to show his girlfriend the beauty of the fireflies overhead causes a car accident that kills Danny and Nina, injures his girlfriend, and leaves him badly hurt with a traumatic brain injury. The next scenes, with Chris’s voice-over, which includes repetition of the phrase “I wake up,” are effective at describing succinctly what Chris’s life is like for him after the accident. This focus on Chris, someone who has been seriously injured, often has trouble focusing and remembering, and may or may not be accountable any more for his actions, is precisely what make this bank heist film different. Trying to remember what happened the night of the accident becomes an important theme for Chris and for the film.
(This blog post about The Lookout contains spoilers.)
Fate plays a large role in Chris’s life, starting with the accident when the film opens. Chris and his friends are driving on a deserted road, and there’s no reason to believe that anyone else would be on it at night. Fate seems to put the stalled thresher in the middle of the road for Chris to hit. The best that Chris can do after the accident is continue getting his life back together in the apartment that he shares with a blind man named Lewis and support himself as best he can working nights as a janitor at a local bank, the Noel Town Bank. But fate is still at work in Chris’s life. His job and his condition are what interest Gary Spargo: Gary has been watching Chris and charting his current habits. Gary and his friends plan to use Chris in their plot to rob the Noel Town Bank.
Once Chris becomes involved in the planning of the bank heist, events seem to spiral quickly out of control. He suffers trauma again, during the bank heist, because of decisions that he may or may not be responsible for, given his condition since the accident on the night of his high school prom. The second episode of trauma brings back some memories from the first one, and Chris’s flashbacks are instrumental to the resolution of the story. Chris had no memory of the car crash, and only through the traumatic events of the bank heist does he regain those memories. Once he can remember what happened the night of his high school prom, he feels more in control of his life and more able to put his life back together.
How responsible is Chris for the auto accident and for the decisions that he makes after the accident? Is Chris coerced into joining Spargo’s group planning the bank heist, or is he responsible for his own actions? Chris seems to think that he is responsible, judging by what he says in the return to his voice-over narration at the end of the film:
“Once upon a time, I woke up, and I robbed the Noel Town Bank. I returned the money and confessed my part, but in the end the FBI decided that someone like me could never pull off something like that. I guess it didn’t hurt that Marty cut the phone line instead of the video feed, so that the whole thing was caught on the bank cameras. . . .”
But viewers cannot be as sure about Chris’s conclusion. Before he recovers his memories, he is easily swayed by Spargo. Spargo tells Chris, “Whoever has the money, has the power.” It’s a powerful incentive for Chris, who is looking for more power, more control, in his life. Spargo’s manipulation of Chris works, at least temporarily.
The members of the original bank heist gang, especially Bone, are portrayed as thoroughly evil, but all the other characters are much more complicated. Chris eventually realizes that he has been manipulated by Spargo. He also realizes that he is doing wrong, and he slowly begins to realize that he is betraying his friends and putting them in danger with his decisions. In addition to his guilt over his high school friends’ deaths, Chris starts to feel guilty about the harm he is bringing to his coworkers and friends, especially Lewis and Deputy Ted.
Chris mentions early in the film that he didn’t really enjoy hunting with his father and his brother, but he hunted with them because he was good at it. After his participation in the bank heist and remembering what happened the night of the accident, he uses his new sense of control and power. It has nothing to do with money and thus gives him an edge over Gary Spargo. This edge and his expert marksmanship allow Chris to save himself and his friend Lewis.
After the accident on the night of Chris’s high school prom, all the colors in the film are muted and washed-out. Chris is just barely living his life now. Scenes in Chris’s and Lewis’s apartment are shot with light, shadow, and color that reminded me of Edward Hopper paintings. The last sequence in the film, in which Chris reflects on his past, is brighter and a bit more colorful: He is finally embracing his life and looking toward the future.
But Chris’s voice-over that accompanies this last sequence is also haunting. Some of what he discusses reminds viewers that he is still suffering from a brain injury. He says, “Until then, all I can do is wake up, take a shower, with soap, and try to forgive myself.” It’s a line that repeats his words from the beginning of the film. Chris has learned to sequence events, but he does it best working backward: “I guess I’ll just have to work backward from there.” It’s an approach that he learned from his roommate Lewis, who told him that he cannot write a story if he doesn’t know where it’s going. It is also the idea that helped Chris save his own and Lewis’s lives near the end of the film.