Originally released 30 Mar 2007
Written and directed by Scott Frank
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeff Daniels, Matthew Goode, and Isla Fisher
My rating: ★★★ 1/2 stars
An exciting heist movie with character and thematic substance.
Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) once had everything. In a moment, that changed. In a car accident, Chris sustains a traumatic brain injury (TBI), which profoundly affects his ability to function. Chris knew what his life was before. He struggles to imagine what his life can be after. The Lookout finds Chris mourning for who he was and the life he had.
That story would be enough for a movie, probably something inspirational and treacly about how Chris overcomes the obstacles disability puts in his way to find a new, better path in his life than the one he was on before. But The Lookout is better than that. Written and directed by screenwriter Scott Frank (Dead Again, Plain Clothes), The Lookout avoids cliché. It takes the story of a young man dealing with his disability and puts it in the plot of a heist movie. Frank’s outstanding script ensures that the two modes complement each other.
After his accident, Chris lives a gloomy life, waking up, going to independent living classes, and working as a night janitor in a small-town bank. He lives with an older blind man, Lewis (Jeff Daniels), who helps Chris function in and acclimate to life with his disability. (Regarding my discussion of cripping up in an earlier essay, I believe Lewis is a good example of a role that should have been played by a blind actor. As loath as I would be to give up a Jeff Daniels performance, and he is wonderful here, none of the arguments in favor of using an able-bodied performer apply here.) Chris’s family members are at a loss as to how to relate to Chris since his accident. They don’t seem interested in learning about his disability and how it affects his life. They jump back and forth from not recognizing that he can’t do everything to thinking that he can’t do anything.
Part of the issue with their lack of understanding is the nature of Chris’s injury. In general, people understand what “blind” means—the person can’t see, people understand what “deaf” means—the person can’t hear, people understand what paralyzed means—the person can’t move some part(s) of their body, but TBI is far less understood by people in general and far more difficult to understand, with its multiple and varied effects.
I had seen TBI depicted in TV, books, and movies such as Random Harvest where it is just a plot device. Nothing I’d seen or read ever gave a sense of what TBI really was until ABC news reporter Bob Woodruff was injured in an explosion in Iraq in 2006. Even then, my understanding was extremely limited going in to seeing The Lookout in 2007. The movie gave me a sense of what the effects of TBI might be. Some minimal research on the internet suggests that the depiction of the disability in the film is accurate. Movies and other cultural products are how we learn about experiences that are not our own. Thus, they have a duty to present those experiences accurately.
Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) may not be an expert on TBI, but he understands precisely what Chris feels. Gary has the sociopath’s gift for reading and manipulating people. Without much difficulty and with the aid of a honey trap, ex-stripper Luvlee Lemons (Isla Fisher), Gary draws Chris into the scheme to rob the bank at which Chris is a janitor. Goode is extraordinary. In a bigger movie, it might have been a star-making performance.
Gary promises Chris power. It’s an irresistible lure for someone with a disability. Disability makes a person feel disempowered. Disability can make a person poor, strip them of their independence, and deny them basic control over their body. Gary reminds Chris of the person he was before. He gives Chris back the feeling of empowerment over his life and of opportunity in the world.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is wonderfully restrained as Chris. Too often, actors playing a character with a disability tend to play the disability and not the character. Gordon-Levitt eludes that trap and escapes the potential for overacting that playing a character with a disability provides. At the time, he had just come off two excellent performances in Mysterious Skin (2005) and Brick (2006), showing him to be one of the rare child stars with the ability to take on complex adult roles.
Scott Frank’s script is the movie’s biggest strength. It proves that a genre film can be character driven. It shows that characters can be affected by a disability but not defined by it—a dexterous move considering that traumatic brain injury can have an impact on a person’s very personality. The structure of the script perfectly reflects the classic rising action leading to a climax model that is the essence of good storytelling. Each scene brings Chris and the plot closer to the moment of crisis, and the third act delivers on the build-up leading to it. The script trusts the viewers to understand the significance of minor details without explaining them in detail. I was spectacularly impressed with the way important ideas or plot elements were cleverly planted earlier in the movie in such a way that they seemed to have no significance or a different significance than when they come up later at crucial moments.
Revisiting this movie for this blog entry, I found it was stronger than I remembered. It’s a low-key, unpretentious movie that avoids calling attention to how well performed, well structured, and well executed it is. It avoids the clichés of movie depictions of disability that focus on redemption and inspiration. It does more for presenting disabled people as individuals with agency than do films with a sense of their own importance that reduce disabled people to mere objects of inspiration.