Innovation is difficult enough in film when time and budget are in ample supply. When equipped only with a miniscule budget and a 20-day shooting schedule, innovation on Brick’s scale is extraordinary. Writer/director Rian Johnson has fused two utterly disparate genres more successfully than anyone in recent memory, transplanting the visual and thematic sensibilities of film noir to a modern American high school. Such contrasting styles would usually have difficulty finding life beyond a metafictional conceit, but Johnson weds the two as if they should always have been together.
Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a voluntary outcast within his small-town high school, choosing to eat lunch behind the dining hall after his girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) leaves him for another crowd for reasons he doesn’t understand, even though he’s a savvy guy who “knows all the angles” of the high school social maze. The film opens with a stark shot of her dead body with Brendan crouched nearby, and after we catch up to this day in flashback, Brendan seeks to identify and punish those responsible. He’s the gumshoe figure of the film, evaluating the leads with cool restraint and the help of Brain (Matt O’Leary), a similarly world-weary student with useful talents. Brendan’s first port of call is Emily’s last boyfriend, Dode (Noah Segan), who is embroiled with a local drug operation led by the Pin (Lukas Haas), who Brendan is introduced to via the Pin’s violent and impulsive henchman Tug (Noah Fleiss) and mysterious socialite Laura (Nora Zehetner). He then infiltrates their organisation in order to discover the truth about Emily’s death.
But let’s get the key disclaimer out of the way: do not expect to be able to follow this film’s plot, which pays a winking homage to film noir in being almost as labyrinthine as The Big Sleep. But like that film, it just doesn’t matter. While it will be interesting to discover if multiple viewings make Brick’s narrative more lucid or whether the narrative is even logical, confusion is a good thing the first time around. Our emotional grasp of the hidden allegiances, clandestine confrontations, and decisive shoot-outs is enough to carry us through, even if we don’t understand how we got there, and it’s no doubt a deliberate choice by Johnson. Noir was as much about the journey as the destination, and Brick revels in that journey in almost tactile ways, down to the minimalist score that drips with sadness and the dissolves between scenes that heighten our sense of the inevitable. Johnson has done extraordinary things with lighting and cinematography given the very brief production schedule. So many shots are gorgeous to behold in either their starkness or blatant construction, such as an unforgettable shot where the Pin moves into a sliver of light during a monologue as Brendan regains consciousness or a chilling wide shot of an execution at the mouth of a tunnel. This is a film that just drips with style and inventiveness.
And then there’s the language. Not content with appropriating film noir conventions and visual motifs, Johnson crafts a new vernacular that merges noir dialogue with high school life, taking the genre’s lead and finding metaphors in that world to represent broader concerns (“eating lunch” becomes a designation of one’s mood and social standing, by choice or otherwise). This is the film’s riskiest proposition, and doesn’t work for many and perhaps it shouldn’t, but Johnson scripts these lines with such earnestness but without succumbing to blatancy that they work, and seem almost transcendent as a result. Even when Brendan is referred to as ‘shamus’, it somehow feels right, as if the divisive world of high school is the natural successor to the perpetual night of urban 1930s gumshoes, their molls, and their cases and we are merely visiting a Doc Brown/Donnie Darko-esque tangent universe where the dialogue of old movies played a much greater role in our culture. There are a surprising number of counterparts between high school life and noir, so the dialogue is weirdly consistent as well as beautiful to hear.
The performances are key to this dialogue working, and Johnson has cast wisely. Joseph Gordon-Levitt follows up Mysterious Skin with another solemn role in a very different film, and he’s utterly compelling. He’s in every scene, but he never fails to hold our attention. Lukas Haas is a creepy revelation as the tranquil Pin, and Noah Fleiss turns the potentially silly role of brash thug into something more resonant. The only drawback is in the female roles, which is the fault of the script rather than the performances. Johnson is perhaps too faithful to the limiting representation of women in noir as either in distress or femme fatale, mostly the latter. In most respects, Brick feels like a contemporary film despite its homages to the past, but in the case of the women Johnson doesn’t update noir sufficiently. But de Ravin and Zehetner still give great performances, particularly the sheer melancholy of de Ravin as the doomed Emily.
It’s been a few weeks since I saw this film, but writing about it has given me an insatiable hunger to see it again. Brick becomes even richer in retrospect, a riveting achievement of both style and storytelling, and parallels Donnie Darko in marking the emergence of a truly innovative young director. Brick promises to be a cult classic, and rightly so. And that music!!…..