‘Brick’ Thick with Genius

     March 31, 2006

Moodily prowling his high school campus with fists jammed deep into a rumpled beige jacket, Brendan Frye certainly doesn’t look the Philip Marlowe type then again, neither did Philip Marlowe as mutteringly brought to life by Elliot Gould in Robert Altman’s hippiefied The Long Goodbye, and that point of reference is key to appreciating what Rian Johnson and his star, Joseph Gordon-Levitt have accomplished with the high school noir, Brick. Critics have been obsessed with comparing the film to the UPN series Veronica Mars, or, most insultingly, Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone being a fan of the former and a vehement detractor of the latter, I have to wonder if they Sidekicked their way through the movie or were just plain drunk. From the opening image of Brendan kneeling at the dank mouth of a drainage tunnel, gazing emptily on the lifeless body of his missing-no-more girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), as Nathan Johnson’s Morricone-esque main theme clatters hauntingly, Brick bares a heavy soul well beyond the reach of any typical teenager. Though Johnson is quick in interviews to name check the work of Dashiell Hammett (by way of Miller’s Crossing) as the inspiration for his film, Brendan’s beaten-down morality, his obstinate code of honor is quintessential Raymond Chandler.

Identifying this immediately will help acclimate the viewer to Johnson’s appropriation of 1930’s tough-guy lingo that was already a mouthful for William Powell back when people allegedly spoke with such flourish, though anyone not cursed with a dully literal mind should find the well-cast actors’ handling of the stylized banter exhilarating rather than distracting. Besides, it’s much better than the alternative – the glib, wise-beyond-their-years back-and-forth that finds kids ostensibly born in the 1980’s dropping pop culture references reflective of a thirtysomething writer’s sensibility. I suppose Johnson could’ve just gone with naturalistic dialogue, but since when did noir have anything to do with naturalism? This is Red Harvest, not Over the Edge. Since Johnson’s got a great ear for the period, he might as well indulge his talent rather than annoy us with teenagers who sound way too much like teenagers.

This isn’t to say that Johnson has written his youthful dramatis personae as adults emotionally, their concerns are piercingly the stuff of high school. Brendan’s journey begins with the disappearance of Emily, and it’s clear from the beginning that he feels as if he’s lost a soul mate, young love being as intense as it is fleeting. But what really rankles is the idea that he’s lost her to the dead-ending collection of burnouts they used to look down upon. He can’t believe Emily’s stumbled so badly that she’d scrap their refuge of two for guys who numbly while away the day leaning against a dumpster waiting for the next fix of whatever. When Brendan goes to shake these lolling mugs down for Emily’s whereabouts, his scorn should be familiar to anyone who’s watched helplessly as a companion strayed inexplicably for someone surely less wonderful and together than themselves.

Marlowe’s past never interceded to this extent, but he was enthrallingly capable of exhibiting the brutish behavior of the betrayed, and that’s what Brendan lets barge to the fore in order to muscle out information that might otherwise be withheld. Like any fictional private dick from Marlowe to Jim Rockford, Brendan is tough enough to hold his own in a fistfight with a thug twice his size, which means he’s as capable of eking out a surprise victory as taking a wincingly prolonged beating, both of which occur in Brick. It’s this stubbornness borne of righteous indignation that powers the twisty narrative, and keeps it from being an overly cerebral genre exercise intended to showcase a smarty-pants director’s visual flair – and Johnson’s blessed with the compositional skill to have pulled up this short.

The Sundance Film Festival, where Brick snagged a Special Jury Prize for “Originality of Vision”, has become a dumping ground for calling card films over the last decade (the most execrable being studio whore Justin Lin’s Better Off Tomorrow), and while Johnson definitely has a future as a for-hire action flick director if he wants it (there’s a literally breathtaking foot chase midway through the movie that harnesses the ferocity of on-his-game William Friedkin), he’s too committed to emotional honesty to ever sell out so disgracefully. This is all reflected in the Gordon-Levitt’s finely nuanced lead performance, which feeds off the sorrow of whatever it is that inspired this screenplay. This may not be as showy a role for the young actor as last year’s Mysterious Skin, but the ease with which he balances Brendan’s cockiness with his vulnerability is just as impressive a feat. The other actors are solid, too Noah Fleiss has fun with his bulldog turn as Tugger, Nora Zehetner is a charmingly doe-eyed femme fatale, and it’s a blast to watch Lukas Haas doing a bizarre riff on De Niro’s Louis Cypher from Angel Heart

But the primary reason Brick is exhilarating from start to finish is that it works in most of the film noir conventions while still being entirely original in applying them. True, there may be an element of pandering to Johnson’s selection of genre (cineastes are suckers for film noir and westerns), but this sucker connects with the rib cracking force of a flush gut shot. And the high school setting turns out to be his masterstroke. When Marlowe reached the end of a case, he was merely confirming everything he loathed about humanity the answers Brendan receives in Brick’s football field denouement come as a shock. Life is shit? Yep. That’ll learn him. That Brendan keeps this disheartening epiphany to himself suggests that he’ll keep fighting regardless. Chandler would be proud.

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