For his first foray into directing, screenwriter Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report) has, first, come up with another dandy script -- dissimilar to anything he's done before -- and, second, shown that he's also got a sharp director's eye to go along with that writing talent.

And it doesn't hurt to have a cast of actors willing to go to all kinds of offbeat emotional places to help shape his vision.

The story forms slowly, forgoing any typical arc, ending up in territories that are simply unexpected. It centers on Chris Pratt (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), once the big man on his Midwestern high school campus. You probably knew him -- the sports hero who everyone looked up to, and who went steady with the best-looking girl in town. But that was four years ago, before he went out on that double date and tried to thrill his companions by speeding down a long, dark road, hoping to surprise them with a quirk of nature that required him to turn the headlights off. But things didn't go as planned.

Now he cries, talks to himself, walks around in confusion, has body scars, takes major meds, attends the Independent Life Skills Center and lives a strictly ordered life in which he depends upon notes he jots down on a little pad to get him through the day.

"I just want to be who I was," he says to his caseworker, a quiet desperation in his voice and on his face.

Levitt (Tommy on TV's Third Rock From the Sun) knows exactly what he's doing with that expressive face and plaintive voice. He did the same thing, in a very different way, in the moody and quirky Brick a couple of years ago. But he also knows how to work with other actors, and he's in fine company here. Jeff Daniels plays his blind roommate Lewis, a character who manages to ground the addled Chris whenever things get really tough for him. Matthew Goode (the rich, carefree brother in Match Point) is Gary Spargo, a mysterious, soft-spoken stranger who chats up Chris at the neighborhood pub. Isla Fisher (the amusing nymphomaniac in Wedding Crashers) is the equally mysterious Luvlee, who's interested in Chris either as a romantic partner or as a mark.

Actually, there are loads of folks who could figure out a way to use this poor lost soul, especially since he's the lone night man in a smalltown bank, mopping up the floor while dreaming of someday becoming a teller.

You know right away, possibly from the shifty gleam in Gary's eye or maybe because whenever he appears or his name is mentioned, the soundtrack music gets quiet and menacing, that he's up to no good. From the moment we're introduced to his black-clad, longhaired accomplice Bone (Greg Dunham, who could give perennial movie villain Michael Wincott a run for his money in the creepy actor department), it's very clear that there's a load of worries and a pile of no good waiting down the road. Any remaining questions are put to rest when there's mention of a "bag of guns" just before Gary proudly but still quietly announces to Chris, "I'm gonna rob a bank." (Creepily, shortly before that he says, "I'm gonna help you" -- which means that Chris gets to be the gang's lookout.)

It's from that point that the till-then slow-moving film starts to rev its engines. Good people are thrown together with bad; easygoing situations go out of control; placid settings turn violent. Chris, the tale's supposed hero, is a walking bundle of damaged goods who generally doesn't know what to do under normal, everyday circumstances -- never mind extreme ones.

Frank's sure touch as a writer-director, combined with Gordon-Levitt's captivating screen presence, keep you wondering where this will all go, hoping that evil won't triumph. The only problem the film presents is that because the story unfolds in a kind of slow, lazy manner, it could require more patience than many viewers will be willing to invest in it. They probably won't realize till it's over that it was ever so slowly grabbing hold of its plot strands and weaving them together, building and building to a climax that, in truth, will totally please half the audience and just possibly cause those who just couldn't stick with it to ask for their money back.

Palouse Cult Film Revival: Little Shop of Horrors @ The Kenworthy

Wed., Feb. 8, 7:30-9:30 p.m.
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