In a different world, I think what I would have primarily taken away from The Lookout is how thrilling it is to see a crackerjack screenwriter like Scott Frank (he who adapted Get Shorty and Out of Sight, and co-adapted Minority Report) get a chance to direct, and do a damn fine job of it. But in this world, we notice actors more readily than directors, unfair as that may be, and that is why I am bowled over not so much by Frank's taut screenplay or efficient, no-frills visual stylings, and instead by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, that former sitcom cipher who decided it might be fun to make indie films and become the greatest actor of his generation at the age of 26.

That's hyperbole, of course. But honestly: ten years ago, he was toiling on the fitfully amusing 3rd Rock from the Sun and not standing out very much in the process. Yada yada yada, and he's now starring in his third consecutive more or less flawless lead performance after holding court in Mysterious Skin and Brick.

In The Lookout, Gordon-Levitt plays Chris Pratt, a former high-school hockey star who got himself and three other students into a car accident that left two kids dead, and Chris with a damaged frontal lobe that leaves him unable to think narratively or form consistent short-term memories. It's a prime role for showboating, and thank all the Gods of Acting, he doesn't do anything like that. Instead, Gordon-Levitt creates his character largely through vacancy, and the very absence of "actorly" moments: he has a constant glassy stare and flat expression, and a barely detectable stiffness of movement as though he never quite learned how to walk properly. What strong emotion there is, is felt entirely through his voice that always sounds wavering just on the edge of screaming. He plays a quietly frustrated, claustrophobic character, which feels somehow infinitely more right than the mumbling, twitching personification of (to pick a random example that isn't random at all) Adam Sandler in Reign Over Me.

It is a crisp, clean performance, which ties it in very neatly to the film as a whole, which is blissfully free of pretensions in getting down to the business of being a tidy caper thriller. The shadow of Memento hangs over The Lookout, superficially: the brain-damaged hero, the memory loss, the need to write everything down to capture the important memories for later reference (it's worth mentioning that Frank's script was floating around, unproduced, long before that film was made). But that is absolutely the end of the similarities. Frank does not go for gimmicks or cinematic "wow" moments; he just hunkers down and gets to the business of telling a crafty story, keeping the pacing tight and the actors on edge. It's refreshingly stripped-down, reminiscent of non-Godard New Wave, or the more script-oriented filmmakers of Hollywood in the 1970s.

The plot is perfectly simple and shopworn: Chris works in a bank; an old friend of a friend named Gary Spargo (Matthew Goode) wants to rob that bank, so he sics a femme fatale named Luvlee (Isla Fisher) on Chris, to literally seduce him into the gang. The rest ensues largely as you would anticipate. But plot isn't the film's concern. Character is. The bank heist matters not because it is interesting to watch (it is one of the most unexceptional schemes possible), but because of how it affects Chris, who retains just enough of his old psyche to know how miserable he is with the new one.

I don't mean to suggest that the film is all Chris, all the time. It's not quite an ensemble piece, but it is blessed with some particularly fine characters and performances beyond Gordon-Levitt, especially Goode (with one of the best faux-American accents in recent memory, and a playful smarminess that much trumps his work in Match Point), and Jeff Daniels in another charming smart-ass role, as Chris's blind roommate. (Luvlee is not so memorable as performed or written; plenty of femme and not nearly enough fatale. If anything, she seems kind of sweetly stupid).

In short, it's a crime film about compelling people, and in this way above all others it's clear that Frank is a writer before he is a director. It's not exactly humanist or humane, but it's close to that: it's human. It's a film on a small scale, and when the hell did you last see a bank heist movie for which that is even close to true? Nobody's going to go out of their way to call this a masterpiece, because it is in truth a slight little thing; but it is a surpassing well-assembled slight little thing.

The requisite hang-wringing about what doesn't work: the third act. After plugging along for a good while steadily building steam, showing the characters settling into the plot, Chris rather abruptly becomes a very different person when the happy outcome requires that he be so (and that's another whole problem: this film absolutely does not deserve the pat conclusion it receives). Gordon-Levitt does what he can to make this believable, but Chris of the first 70 minutes is a very different man than Chris of the final 30, and the film suffers for it greatly. The point of a character study is, after all, to document character and show how it evolves - not to show how it skips like a record needle hopping tracks.

And for all that I admire the film's streamlined plunge through its story, it's almost too lean: we have a precious few quiet moments in the film to regroup and observe the characters in a moment of repose. The one exception is a Thanksgiving sequence fairly early on, and it's successful enough to make me wish that there were another two or three scenes just like it. It's the sacrifice of worldliness for pacing, and there's arguments either way, but it would have been nice for just a little bit of slowdown, once the plot gets boiling.

Quibbling aside, it's a fine piece of work by any measure, and nobody has anything to be ashamed of here. A solid character thriller is nothing to ignore, God knows there are few enough of them nowadays, and just because a genre film doesn't flail around like a mutant music video doesn't mean it hasn't been made with passion and conviction.