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“I don’t want you to come kicking in my homeroom door because of something I didn’t do.” —Brendan Frye to his vice principal, Brick
In one of his classic Saturday Night Live short films from the mid-’70s, Albert Brooks did a mock-preview of NBC’s upcoming “Super Season” of exciting new replacement shows and specials. (“Even a super season has super failures! That’s why, at NBC, we’ve got super replacements!”) Among the many promising offerings, like Black Vet (a black Vietnam War veteran who’s also a small-town veterinarian) or the randy Three’s Company rip-off The Three Of Us, there’s a new production of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman, performed entirely by children. Cut to a clip of two youngsters, playing dress-up in baggy clothes and gray wigs, mush-mouthing their way through dialogue intended for actors more than half a century their seniors.
In lesser hands, this could have happened to Brick, Rian Johnson’s risky attempt to bring the hard-boiled language and plotting of post-war detective fiction to a contemporary high-school setting. The obvious pitfall would be the embarrassing spectacle of junior Humphrey Bogarts and Veronica Lakes acting like grown-ups; noir relies on a measure of world-weary cynicism, and even a generation as naturally sarcastic as the younger set might have trouble suggesting that seen-it-all wisdom—or smoking a cigarette properly, for that matter. The other, related pitfall is taking the gimmick too far and letting the movie-movie artifice overwhelm any authentic emotions or original ideas; go too heavy with the homage, and you’ve got a smart-alecky curiosity, not a movie.
Johnson threads the needle a hundred different ways, but before getting into all the little things he gets right, here’s how the concept pays off: The common denominator between crime fiction and high school is a mood of heightened emotion obscured by a thin veneer of cool. There’s never a time in a person’s life where they feel things more intensely than in high school, nor is there a time when they labor as hard to keep those feelings under wraps. By evoking the stylized, rat-a-tat dialogue of vintage Dashiell Hammett detective novels—with words like “yeggs” (guys), “heel” (walk away), “jake” (drugs), “shamus” (detective), et al.—Johnson finds a new way to suggest teenagers’ capacity for couching their real problems in language. He also raises the stakes: Crime fiction deals with matters of life and death, and if that isn’t literally true of adolescence, it certainly feels that way to those on the inside. So by introducing a dead body into the equation, Johnson provides an incident that justifies that level of intensity.
The biggest reason Brick doesn’t turn into Death Of A Salesman performed by children? The casting of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most gifted young actors of his generation, in the lead role. I’ve sung Gordon-Levitt’s praises in these virtual pages before, when I talked up his wrenching performance as a sexually abused kid turned reckless gay hustler in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin. He plays another emotionally wounded outsider in Brick, but of an entirely different stripe—more introverted and guarded, more in control of his situation, and obviously more verbally dexterous. There’s pain and loss lingering behind his eyes, but he’s the Sam Spade of this movie, so outwardly, he has to project confidence, intelligence, and a drive to get to the bottom of a mystery. It’s a remarkably subtle, accomplished performance, even before you get to the tricky technical problem of mastering the retro gumshoe dialogue in Johnson’s screenplay.
The haunting opening shot finds Gordon-Levitt’s character, Brendan Frye, quietly assessing the dormant body of his former girlfriend Emily (Emilie De Ravin) as it lies facedown in the water outside a sewage tunnel. Cut to two days earlier, when Brendan finds a note in his locker beckoning him to a street-corner pay phone and arrives to get an agitated call from Emily, whom he hasn’t seen in two months. Rumor around school has it that Emily has been running with a bad crowd, so when she turns up dead, Brendan hides the body in the tunnel and conducts his own investigation. His only real friend is “The Brain” (Matt O’Leary), a bespectacled egghead who’s good at keeping an ear to the ground and sketching in the gaps in Brendan’s investigation. In this early scene, Brendan and “The Brain” speak in a kind of shorthand that’s common to old friends—and a prime example of Johnson’s gloriously ornate dialogue:
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As Brendan pokes around looking for answers, he has to infiltrate the treacherous social strata that make up high-school life, and figure out the connections between them: There’s Laura (Nora Zehetner), an “upper-crust” femme fatale given to wearing the silky cheongsam dresses favored by Maggie Cheung in In The Mood For Love; Dode (Noah Segan), a back-of-the-building drug addict who may have provided Emily with the hook-up; Brad Bramish (Brian White), a football non-star who’s considered the biggest source on campus; Tugger (Noah Fleiss), a perpetually angry enforcer who’s more than just dumb muscle; and at the top of the food chain, The Pin (Lukas Haas), a lanky, insinuating drug kingpin who’s like the gravitational force around which everyone else orbits. In a way, they’re all responsible for Emily’s demise, just as a student’s high-school experience comes from his entire class. And Brendan, a kid given to eating his sack lunches in isolation behind the school, either refuses to fit into the caste system, or has long since been exiled from it.
With his hero going chin-first into his investigation, Johnson strikes the perfect balance between Brendan the old-fashioned, tough-talking gumshoe and Brendan the insecure, lonely teenager. Whenever he throws himself into the procedural, Brendan very much looks the part: He’s relentless, resourceful, and more than a little pugnacious, fully prepared to take a few punches if it means getting to that next step. (He’s also, for a scrawny kid, a real scrapper: Matched against guys twice his size, like Brad Bramish, he can improvise a quick pop to the jaw or a cheap shot at the ankles.) At the same time, he’s having to deal with the loss of the woman he loves, and what he might have been able to do to save her. Based on the few but crucial flashback scenes between Brendan and Emily, it’s clear that he’s extremely protective of her but she feels suffocated by their relationship, and there’s ultimately nothing he could have done to prevent her fate. But this is cold comfort for Brendan; he may be relieved of any sense of responsibility for her death, but the rejection still stings, and solving the mystery won’t bring her back or salve the pain.
Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are smart to play Brendan’s troubles straight, but that doesn’t keep Brick from having a little fun. For one, Johnson knows how to spin a deliciously knotty yarn—his follow-up, The Brothers Bloom, is even more densely orchestrated, often to its detriment—and the film yields plenty of revelations on repeat viewings for those who pay close enough attention. He also seizes on the comic juxtaposition of kids acting like adults from ’50s crime fiction, yet still existing in a contemporary world, one with adults like the vice principal (Richard Roundtree!) and The Pin’s oblivious mother. Had Johnson overplayed this card and gotten too cute with his baby noir, it would have been impossible to take his hero’s plight seriously, and the film’s potential for empty gimmickry would have taken over. As it stands, there are hilariously incongruous scenes like this one, where Brendan and The Pin surface for an afternoon snack. (My favorite detail: The cookie centered on a napkin in front of The Pin. Sort of undermines his badass persona.)
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Shot in 20 days for roughly half a million dollars—a shoestring budget that’s more astonishing when you consider that Johnson chose to shoot in 35mm instead of crappy DV—Brick is a precocious debut feature, making the most out of few locations and the inexpensive marvels of plotting and dialogue. (Surprisingly enough, The Brothers Bloom reveals Johnson to be a comic formalist of the Wes Anderson school, though there’s little sign of that here.) Even the score, by Johnson’s cousin, Nathan, has a wonderful homemade quality, like a pots-and-pans Ennio Morricone orchestration. Devotees may return to Brick primarily to sort out the whos, whats, and whys, or perhaps just to savor Johnson’s flair for arcane language. But there’s a real soul to it, too, with the crime-fiction elements underlining the everyday perils of getting through high school. A lot of teenagers wonder if they’ll get make it through adolescence alive; Brick has the inspired idea of taking that thought literally.
Next week: Team America: World Police
June 4: Code Unknown
June 11: Trust*
June 18: Quick Change
* After I put Trust on the schedule, it came to my attention that it isn’t available on Region-1 DVD. I initially thought of going with another Hal Hartley, like Amateur or Henry Fool, but I’ve decided to let this one stand. For those interested in playing along at home, it’s available on Netflix Instant Viewing and plain old videocassette.