Brick is the impressive debut feature film from American writer/director, Rian Johnson. The 31-year-old has cleverly created an unusual new world for his drama, complete with its own language, logic and mythology – a dark 1940s-style film noir set in a contemporary Californian high school community. It’s a brave and highly original concept that could have backfired, but manages to overcome any deficiencies with stylistic flair and strong performances from its young cast.
The movie opens with the discovery of a girl’s dead body in a storm drain by a teenage boy. The boy is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the girl is his former girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Rather than go to the police (or ‘bulls’ as they are known in Brick-world) Brendan decides to hide the body and do the investigating himself. He enlists the help of a trusted offsider, The Brain (Matt O’Leary), and proceeds to unravel the murky dealings of the High School underworld.
All the standard film noir characters are present, albeit in slightly disguised form. There is a femme fatale (Nora Zehetner), a thug (Noah Fleiss) and a mysterious crime boss called The Pin (Lukas Haas). Johnson also litters the movie with visual references to the film noir genre, while its dialogue reads like a Raymond Chandler novel. There are ‘gats’, ‘picks’ and ‘reef worms’. A town is a ‘burg’ and ‘duck soup’ is easy pickings.
Unfortunately, the dialogue is often so riddled with this kind of slang that at times you cannot help but feel disconnected from the action onscreen. This does not help matters as the film progresses and the plot becomes more convoluted and difficult to follow.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is impressive as the movie’s ‘detective’, Brendan Frye, and projects the requisite determination and cool. It’s Gordon-Levitt’s performance (he appears in every scene) that gives the film its strength and allows us to enter its world of mystery. Nora Zehetner also impresses as the double-dealing Laura, while Lukas Haas manages to inject his character with menace and a dark humour.
While the film has been shot in sunny California, Johnson has been able to use light (or lack thereof) and space to create landscapes that compliment the film’s often grim mood. The action takes place in desolate carparks, on empty playing fields, or in claustrophobic rooms or tunnels.
He has also been careful to exclude (almost entirely) adults from Brick-world. Richard Rowntree makes a brief appearance as the school’s Vice Principal, and we get a glimpse of The Pin’s mother (she provides milk and cookies to her son’s thugs and goons), otherwise it’s an all-teenage cast. This ploy might seem gimmicky, but Brick is no Bugsy Malone. The adult-free environment helps to reinforce the idea of a fully self-contained world, with its own laws and language.
If you are a fan of film noir, Raymond Chandler or Humphrey Bogart you will savour every minute of Brick, and find yourself grinning at the snappy dialogue and familiar characters. If not, there is still plenty to enjoy, for it is a film-lover’s film, filled with visual treats and clever references.
But it’s also the sort of movie that requires your close attention. So watch and listen carefully. The chances are you’ve never seen anything quite like Brick.