by Josie Kafka
Writer/director Rian Johnson’s films each have a definite aesthetic, from the twee steampunk of The Brothers Bloom to the deliberate paradoxes of time travel and selfhood in his most recent film Looper. Brick, his feature debut, is no different: it’s straight-up noir, with hard-boiled slang, a plot more convoluted than The Big Sleep, a flawed hero who plays all the angles to avenge a wronged woman—and it’s set in a modern-day high school.
After discovering the dead body of his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin) washed up in a culvert, Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) sets out on a journey of revenge. He should have dug more than a few graves before embarking: the bodies pile high and deep as he uncovers drug deals gone wrong, loose women and the tough guys who love them, and a perniciously seedy underbelly to the underdeveloped scrubland of Southern California.
This isn’t a Veronica Mars retread. VM toyed with its private-eye roots, updating the standard mysteries with email hacks, cell phones, and plots that seemed like they actually could happen in an average high school. Brick isn’t adolescent sunshine noir. It’s the noir of dawn and dusk, of soft blue light and washed-out despair, in which the terse, saturnine hero forces bloody resolution to solve the murder, body count be damned.
The high school setting translates well. Life is mannered in high school, with druggies, brains, and the upper crust posing affectedly—and that’s exactly what everyone does in a classic hard-boiled thriller, too. The closed community operates like that of the shamuses and cons in the LA and San Francisco of the early twentieth century: “you know where to find me” is something Philip Marlowe might say, even if he wouldn’t be referring to where people sit at lunch.
Brendan wants to know the full story of his ex-girlfriend’s death: “I set to know who put her in the spot, who put her in front of the gun.” The quest puts him back into the tricky play of the high school world: he had previously been a small-time drug dealer who ratted out his partner to save his own skin with the vice principal. (And what great implications that title has in a story like this!) This isn’t, in other words, a good guy. He’s a rat, a loner, and an obsessive.
But, as with the Continental Op or Sam Spade, we don’t care. Fictional detectives come in two flavors: those who deduct and those who push a few buttons to see which one lights up. The noir detective is the second type, and the fun is in watching the labyrinthine machinations of a man who is smarter than even the sauciest of dangerous dames. Plus, how can we not love a line like this: “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I've got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you”?
Johnson’s decision to set a noir revenge tale in a high school has few off-beat moments, as when “The Pin” (aka the Kingpin, the drug lord of this unnamed “berg,” played by Lucas Haas) asks Brendan if he likes “Tolkien. You know, the Hobbit books,” or when The Pin’s mom serves cornflakes and apple juice to a group of young men who are thinking about killing one another. But on the whole, the dark humor is just dark enough to let the secondary characters shine, especially Nora Zehetner as Laura, the one person smart enough to present Brendan with a real challenge.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the star, though. Although Brick is just his second big role after over 100 episodes of Third Rock from the Sun, it’s easy to see why he has had so much success with serious roles since this film came out in 2005. His character spends most of the movie injured (possibly with a punctured lung), on the run, and getting hit in the face. But Gordon-Levitt projects a resolve that we can only—in the best noir tradition—refer to as steely, and we never doubt his intelligence or will to succeed.
I wholeheartedly love this movie for its mood, its allusions, its flawed hero, and its uncompromising cynicism. But if you have never been drawn to detective stories or the look and mood of the 1930s and 1940s, you probably won’t. The dialogue will feel stilted, the plot obtusely confusion, and the resolution useless. If, however, you wish that life sometimes played out like a short story in a classic pulp magazine, this is the movie for you.
Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)