Rian Johnson’s Brick is the best movie I’ve seen this year. Now, it is only April, and much of what is out in theatres right now is pretty pathetic, but this film made me want to see it again merely moments after the credits finished rolling. It was that fun. So I did—I went to see it again. And I loved it a second time.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan Frye, an outsider whose upwardly mobile ex phones him for help. Finding her murdered, Brendan determines to locate her killer. Set in a high school in southern California, Brick traverses the typical high school ground of cliques and social climbing but focuses the drama through a new lens: film noir.
Having seen Chinatown and The Maltese Falcon, I’m not a total stranger to noir, but I’m certainly no expert. Johnson employs many of the typical devices: a sense of alienation, a barren setting, betrayal, and hard-boiled dialogue. The use of noir conventions works well in the high school setting because they lend validity to the often superficial concerns of teenage life. While many teen flicks (think Clueless and Drive Me Crazy—two of my personal favorites) lovingly mock the strict hierarchy and etiquette of high school life, Brick employs them in a deeply serious story of heartache and murder.
Johnson makes such bold choices that audiences will likely love it or hate it. Based on the reviews I had read, I expected ultra-heightened language. But in fact I found only a few speeches a bit over the top. Thing is, the actors and director so fully commit to the conceit of the film that I was held completely within its spell for the entirety of the picture. Sure, certain lines ran past me so fast that I missed them entirely, but as with Shakespeare, the actors focus special attention upon the rhythm of the dialogue and hence convey meaning effectively that way.
So what is this dialogue like? Here’s an excerpt in which the protagonist, Brendan (Gordon -Levitt), explains to some hoods why they shouldn’t mess with him: “You wanna take a swing at me, hash-head? Huh? I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.” The film could easily have descended into farce, but Johnson keeps a tight rein on his actors and takes the mystery quite seriously.
A fan of Joseph Gordon-Levitt because of his amazing work in Mysterious Skin, I was not disappointed by his performance in Brick. Whether taking a beating or inflicting one, Gordon-Levitt makes you buy every moment of his tough-guy act. His Brendan is not a superman: he has doubts and fears as well, and this allows empathy for an otherwise detached character.
Less well developed is Brendan’s friendship with the Brain (Matt O’Leary). O’Leary plays the Brain with a sort of autistic intensity: he fires off his convoluted dialogue with a rapid-fire pace. His eyes, magnified by his thick glasses, stare straight ahead, avoiding eye contact and intimacy. Somehow the Brian knows the ins and outs of each clique at school, despite being more of an outsider than Brendan. Why does the Brain help his friend without question or hesitation? Johnson doesn’t take the time to show us the origins of their friendship or the reason for its strength.
Other noir characters are present: the criminal mastermind (Lukas Haas), the femme fatale (Nora Zehetner), and the muscle (Noah Fleiss). Each plays his role with aplomb, though Lukas Haas as the Pin deserves special mention for avoiding the risky trap of playing his role for camp. As he chats with Brendan about Tolkien (ignore the overly poetic sunset in the background), the Pin exposes his own isolation, lending the Pin with an intriguing humanity.
There could be more heat between Zehetner (as Laura) and Brendan, but she certainly keeps us guessing as Brendan tries to decide whose side she is on. Since I’m the feminist film critic, I should probably express my disgust as the perpetuation of the femme fatale stereotype: a woman who uses her sexuality to control men. Though none of the women in this film are particularly admirable (or likeable, really), they fulfill a function of genre. Taking on the misogynistic tradition of noir is a much larger project that I may return to another time. Suffice to say, women in this film are secretive, manipulative man eaters, and Johnson has no apparent interest in showing them as something more.
The plot is convoluted (again, a device of film noir), but if you simply enjoy the ride, all will be revealed. This is not a movie to take too seriously. Johnson keeps the film moving at a quick pace and allows some humor to lighten the heavy tone: before getting the crap kicked out of him, Brendan carefully places his glasses in his eyeglass case and waits for the punch. With style and conviction, Johnson creates an elaborate maze of corruption and invites us to see this world through Brendan’s eyes. Though Brendan himself has a checkered past, his careful foray through the thorny pathways of high school drew me deeply into his world and his despair. Ah, high school: how much I don’t miss you.