It's impossible to watch The Lookout without thinking of Memento. Both films center on heroes suffering from partial memory loss after a traumatic event, and scribbling down notes in order to remember things. Both relay critical information in reverse chronological order. In fact, there's nothing terribly original about The Lookout at all, especially once it breaks down into a rote but efficient heist picture with gears that click a little too smoothly into place. Yet writer-director Scott Frank—who scripted Malice, Out Of Sight, and Minority Report, among other solidly crafted Hollywood thrillers—has cleverly cross-pollinated the genre with a rich character study, raising the stakes considerably. Anchored by yet another exceptional performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who adds this effort to recent standout work in Mysterious Skin and Brick, the film plumbs deep inside the mind of a young man whose deficiencies make him ripe for exploitation.
In the prologue, a wealthy, confident Gordon-Levitt cruises down a country road in a convertible at top speed, then shuts off his headlights to give his passengers a better view of the lightning bugs. When he crashes into a combine, two of his friends die and a third is maimed. Four years later, Gordon-Levitt struggles with the short circuits in his mental and motor capacities, and with his lingering guilt and shame. He bunks with Jeff Daniels, a wise, good-humored blind man he met in recovery, and works nights as a janitor at the local bank in his small Midwestern town. A group of professional thieves targets Gordon-Levitt by preying on his vulnerability and loneliness, providing him with a friend (Matthew Goode) and a girlfriend (Isla Fisher) to lure him into giving them access to the bank.
It may sound like a stretch for Gordon-Levitt to take part in the crime, since his conscience has been stirred in the years following the accident, but the film underlines his need to feel functional and necessary again, even if it's in the service of something wrong. In a magnificently subtle piece of work, Gordon-Levitt never presses his character's mental and physical limitations to actorly effect, yet he carries them across anyway, all while suggesting that his past mistakes are equally crippling. The Lookout's thriller elements could stand to be more surprising, but they're ultimately in service of a better understanding of the characters. Usually, it's the other way around.