Brick (2005) / Mystery-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for violence, language, and drug content
Running Time: 110 min.

Cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O'Leary, Nora Zehetner, Meagan Good, Brian J. White, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segin, Richard Roundtree
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenplay: Rian Johnson
Review published August 11, 2006

First-time writer-director Rian Johnson's script for Brick was written shortly after film school in the mid-1990s, during a period of time when he had read just about any Dashiell Hammett book he could get his hands on.  In this world, characters have their own language and ties to the underbelly of their society.  The only big difference between Hammett's books and Johnson's neo-noir world is that the latter's work is set in high school in the modern day. 

Johnson spent many years sending out his script to anyone he could that would read it, and although most that would read it loved it, none of them were willing to take a chance on such an ambitious screenplay done by an inexperienced director, especially when making the script work with such strange dialogue.  In the end, Johnson's dream could only come true if he did it himself, which he did with the help of friends, family members, and anyone else willing to lend some money to see the project come to life.  With less than $500,000 and a defined game plan, Johnson made the movie he wanted to make -- and it's good.

An "all grown up" Joseph Gordon-Levitt (10 Things I Hate About You, Holy Matrimony) stars as Brendan, high school student and frequent acquaintance of many involved in the underground drug dealing scene at the school and surrounding community of the California town he resides in.  Unfortunately for Brendan, one of those many happens to be the girl he still loves, his former girlfriend turned junkie, Emily (de Ravin, Carrie).  The film opens to a scene where Brendan discovers Emily's apparently dead body, then flashes back two days earlier, when Brendan receives an anguished phone call from Em asking him for help, talking about things he doesn't fully comprehend, using words like "Brick" and "The Pin". 

Brendan sets about to find Em, with the help of his resourceful acquaintance named The Brain (O'Leary, Frailty), and make sure everything is fine.  When the Emily's body is discovered, Brendan determines to find out just what happened to her, delving as deep as he can go in the seamy underbelly of the town to learn the full story of what happened to the only thing in life he's ever loved.

Just as Rian Johnson wrote his script to play out like classic Dashiell Hammett, so too does he direct his film to look like modern noir, featuring many of the same stylish staples that those noir detective films of the 1940s and 1950s were known for.  His approach is completely straight-faced, giving high school kids similar, somewhat anachronistic, stylized dialogue, speaking to each other in a sophisticated and mannered fashion, and adding a depth and maturity not commonly associated with films set in high school.  The main plot itself is knowingly unrealistic, as the characters and events aren't played for realism as to how drug operations are generally run,  

Without the deft hands of a director with the proper vision, Brick would fall apart early on and would probably be little more than an heavily-flawed experimental film.  Since the concept of Brick is entirely Rian Johnson's, perhaps he might have been the only one with enough clue as to what sort of film he wanted to make, as he is able to deliver something of genuine quality and elegance out of a what amounts to high school drug and crime tale.  With a great eye for classic styles, some clever cinematography, an original haunting score, and a very good cast of young actors that are perfect in their respective roles, Johnson manages to create a fine, intricately interwoven murder mystery, not dissimilar to another genre exploration, David Lynch's "Twin Peaks".

I think the most impressive aspect about Brick is how easily Johnson is able to get us to buy into this seemingly alternate universe full of deep-thinking teenage characters, esoteric jargon, and events that would normally strain a straightforward film's plausibility, such as bizarre drugs, weird criminal organizations, murder and double-crosses.  Although a bit strange at first, it takes little time to become enrapt in the unique style and manner of speaking from the main characters, and despite the fact that it's all set in the modern day, featuring locations (like the high school) that are firmly implanted in our own reality, we buy into the notion that such a place with oddball characters and unique criminal hierarchy like the one found in the town Brick is set in can actually exist, even if only for the 110-minute run time of the film.

Brick is probably not a movie that will have strong mainstream appeal, but for those that love independent films, the noir classics, old-fashioned detective stories, or just enjoy seeing something they haven't quite seen before, Rian Johnson's experiment will prove to be a success with you.  For nearly two hours, be prepared to be enrapt in an unusual and offbeat story filled with peculiar characters, cloaked meanings, and unfamiliar dialogue.  It's a decidedly strong-flavored concoction, but like the old hardboiled detective stories from the days of old, it's perfect for those that enjoy the ambivalent, cruel, and gritty world of pulpy noir-ish fiction.

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo