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DIRECTED BY: Rian Johnson
FEATURING:, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segan, Meagan Good, Richard Roundtree
PLOT: A disaffected teenager investigates the mysterious disappearance of his ex-girlfriend, confronting untrustworthy allies and vicious enemies to uncover the truth.
COMMENTS: For reasons that can only be attributed to a breathtaking lack of imagination, a surprisingly large number of contemporary reviewers of Brick made a direct comparison not to the large number of noir classics from which Rian Johnson’s debut feature clearly takes its inspiration, but instead go all the way back to 1976 for the cult oddity Bugsy Malone, a gangster pastiche in which all the parts are played by minors (including Jodie Foster and Scott Baio) wielding Tommy guns that shoot whipped cream. The thinking, one imagines, is that just as one film mocked the conventions of the gangster picture by populating it with children, so does the other diminish the power of noir by setting it in a high school.
The comparison is stunningly short-sighted and backwards. Johnson’s high school noir draws its power not from the dissonance of substance and style but from their harmony. It’s often said that everything in high school feels like a life-and-death situation, when in reality things couldn’t be less serious. But the stakes in Brick are no joke at all. Blood is spilled, bodies drop, and nearly everyone is laden with secrets and lies. Those feelings you had as a teenager? Brick makes them all very real.
Famously edited on a Macintosh back when that was a symbol of scrappiness and indie cred, Brick is a debut of astonishing power and confidence. Johnson is not necessarily a visual stylist. (By way of illustration, this parody pinches his entire shot list while placing a discussion of the fallout over the filmmaker’s foray into the Star Wars universe into all of Brick‘s locations.) But his vision is so self-assured, it’s absolutely easy to see the rich career that lay ahead of him.
Someone who must have spied Johnson’s talent even earlier is lead Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who had to have recognized that he had been gifted with the role of his dreams (and he has been appropriately grateful, taking a starring role in Looper and offering voice cameos to The Last Jedi and Knives Out). He manages to walk the line between embodying a hard-bitten detective while looking like a bookish 17-year-old. His perfectly weathered burgundy shoes and increasingly bruised face make him a worthy successor to Sam Spade, which makes him a natural focal point for the film’s rich and quirky cast of characters. In particular, he gives tremendous power to Zehetner, a middling actress but a magnificent femme fatale whose entrance in a Chinese-styled dress and a flower in her hair is absolutely worthy of her genre forebears.
But everything depends upon Johnson’s script, which is an absolute hoot. He beautifully maps the tropes of noir onto his story, honoring the gravity of the central story while still deriving moments of comedy from recognition of the expected locales: a glamorous party where the detective is out of his element; the verbal showdown with a wit-impaired lunk; a tense negotiation under the nose of a blissfully unaware civilian. Best of all is the traditional face-off between the detective and the long arm of the law, here taking the form of a conference with the assistant principal (played by Richard Roundtree—John Shaft assuming the role of The Man) and containing what might be my favorite piece of film dialogue in the past twenty years, which I reproduce for you here in full:
TRUEMAN: You’ve helped this office out before.
BRENDAN: No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.
TRUEMAN: Fine. And very well put.
BRENDAN: Accelerated English. Mrs. Kasprzyk.
TRUEMAN: Tough teacher?
BRENDAN: Tough but fair.
I remember seeing Brick during its initial run 15 years ago, barely knowing what to expect, and getting that contact high that anyone who really loves movies (and especially anyone who loves weird movies) is always chasing: the shock of the new. This strange amalgam of past and present resulted in something entirely unfamiliar, which is why the comparison to Bugsy Malone is so galling. It would be better to invoke a movie that is unashamedly what it is despite all expectations to the contrary, like say the discovery that South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut would turn out to be a musical, or that Mandy would be an actual grand guignol. Or maybe even the realization that Knives Out would be an honest-to-goodness goddamn Agatha Christie parlor mystery.
When Philip Marlowe’s famed creator, Raymond Chandler, was assessing the career of fellow detective author Dashiell Hammett, he praised Sam Spade’s progenitor for giving “murder back to the kind of people that commit it for reasons, not just to provide a corpse.” Brick takes high school back from dumb comedies and scornful older generations and restores its significance, its importance, its drama. Even the title is a MacGuffin: the slabs of drugs that fuel the squabbles between forces jockeying for power aren’t the real “brick.” For our shamus, it’s the relationship he just can’t put behind him, the dame dragging him down under the surface.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[a] bizarre and ingenious neo-noir… The high school movie has always been a uniquely powerful genre capable of fiercely adult themes, and it is possible to read Brick as a stylised dream-metaphor for the pain of young love or the agony of drug-abuse. But it is difficult to care much about these weirdly contrived characters, and Brick is more a super-smart experiment in style, maintained with tremendous energy and consistency.” — Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Destron, who argued “The weirdness comes from seeing teens talk like Dashiell Hammet characters, along with some dreamlike visuals.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)