Brick (2005)

Made on a budget of less than half a million dollars, writer-director Rian Johnson’s debut film Brick doesn’t bother restricting itself, spinning out a thickly plotted high school detective story. Hard-boiled and fast-talking, Brick enthusiastically embraces the style of its noir influences. Johnson and his cast – especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the lead – are wholly committed to the material, resulting in an original and fully realized crime film.

Taking the detective film template and applying it to high school social life, Brick gives us an unlikely hero in the form of Brendan (Gordon-Levitt), a wiry teenager who begins the film discovering the dead body of his ex-girlfriend, Emily (played by Lost‘s Emile de Ravin). The rest of the movie gives us the back story and then follows Brendan as he takes it upon himself to navigate the social circles of his school to find out who had Emily killed. Brendan is the perfect teenage transcription of the hardened private dick. Intelligent, quick-witted, and tough as all hell, Brendan is an ideal character to follow through the dark underworld that he infiltrates. Gordon-Levitt handles every aspect of the character expertly, including the many fighting scenes that leaves Brendan with serious injuries for the entire second half of the film.

Another trait that Gordon-Levitt seems comfortable with is the fast-talking jibe that makes everyone in the film sound straight out of a 40s crime film. It’s very dry, very jargony and very fast. Nobody slows down to translate the lingo, and even if it’s a conversation that relays an important plot point, the movie never breaks for clarity. This is one of the reasons that Brick may leave some viewers scratching their head. It’s a very intelligent film that trusts its audience to be just as sharp. When characters aren’t whipping snappy dialogue back and forth, they do a lot of visual investigation and silent thinking. The film requires the viewer’s undivided attention to follow its many turning points as Brendan descends into an ever-more-violent world with practically nobody to trust but himself.

Which isn’t to say that Brick is all grim and dirty. Although it takes pride in its style, the movie never forgets that it does, in fact, take place in a high school. It’s hard not to smile when locker meetings and pressure from the school’s Vice Principal are critical puzzle pieces in a murder mystery. And the man at the top of the food chain, the King Pin (Lukas Haas), supplies the most humor at all, from living with his mom (who’s more than happy to provide all of his underlings with after-school snacks) to riding around in a van equipped with a front room table lamp. Although everyone in the sizable cast embraces their character, Haas is definitely the one who has the most fun.

Light moments such as those with the Pin are really what make Brick such a solid and complete movie. Films such as this exemplify the benefits of a director working with his own material. You can tell that Johnson really cares about the story he’s crafted, as he should, since it manages to be familiar and original at the same time. He and the cast give full commitment to a script that’s intelligent almost to a fault, and he ensures that every stylistic element goes hand-in-hand with the world being depicted. As a favor, he has everything explained outright by Brendan in the end, for those who may have been trying but failing to keep up. The explanation doesn’t diminish anything at all, instead leaving you certain that the film you just watched really was as awesome as it seemed.

Final Rating: 8.5/10

Stray Observations (stolen straight from the A.V. Club):

  • I love how the style shows up in little ways all over the place. Early on, when Emilie de Ravin rolls up in a car, the hoodie she has on looks just like an old-fashioned woman’s head scarf.
  • Could you ask for a better “teenage” femme fatale than Nora Zehetner?
  • Of all the characters, Tug (Noah Fleiss) was definitely the weakest. His change of character was one of the few unnatural turns that the film made, and seemed pretty jarring, as if they just needed to get on with the rest of the movie and couldn’t figure out how to get there.
  • Steve Yedin’s got some great cinematography going on, including some really great wide-angle shots when people meet outside. Reminded me sometimes of Michael Slovis’ work on Breaking Bad.
–James A. Janisse
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