With the crime genre still struggling to work through its post-Tarantino hangover, The Lookout is maybe more notable for what it isn't: namely, bloated, flashy, or dependent on pop-culture riffs as a life-support system. The directorial debut of ace Elmore Leonard adapter Scott Frank (Out of Sight, Get Shorty), this is a lean, to-the-bone, expertly acted small-town noir that takes unusual care to cast the moral compass of its characters in various shades of gray. There's just no fat on it.
Making good use of its bleak Midwestern winter setting, the plot follows a former high-school jock god (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), now brain-damaged by a car accident. Suffering from crippling lapses in both memory and impulse control, he languishes in a job as an after-hours bank janitor until some shady folks come by one night with a proposition. Things go downhill from there.
Originally written in 1995, Frank's script has had its share of admirers, passing through the hands of Sam Mendes, Michael Mann, and David Fincher before ending up back in the hands of its creator. Rather than taking on the weighty, overdetermined air of many long-in-the-hopper films, though, this feels like the rare instance where the lengthy gestation time has allowed for a fine calibration of every beat and character moment. Not to diminish the accomplishments of Frank's debut—I can't think of a film that I've enjoyed more in the past few months—but it's the sort of small-scale, minor-by-design triumph that one does a disservice by saddling it with the "masterpiece" label. Rather, consider this the sort of flick that, at least in the pre-TiVo era, you'd stumble across late at night, watch until dawn, and then wonder why they don't make 'em like that anymore.