Fear and desire, paranoia and lost innocence, sex and violence, guilt, betrayal, revenge... The mean streets of film noir? Or the school daze of adolescence? Brilliantly spliced and sutured in Rian Johnson's ultra-cool indie debut, they're parallel universes with a perfect fit. Teen noir? Could be a gimmick. But Brick's opening scene of a dead body face-down in the water is the closest it rubs to film-nerd shot homage. Johnson's genre-riffing mystery thriller is much smarter than that...
Unlike postmodern Coen masterpiece Miller's Crossing (literally a gangster film about being a gangster film) or Polanski's neo-noir Chinatown ('40s noir autopsied by the camera-eye of the '70s), Johnson's film filters the hard-noir detective genre through the bifocals of fraught teen-age. Set in timeless-USA Nowheresville and ripping freely from the pages of Dashiell Hammett, Brick finds every hardboiled archetype kicking it in high-school's social strata: femme fatales (Megan Good's drama-queen maneater), a gangster's moll (Nora Zehetner's rich-girl sophisticate), deadbeats (bike-shed stoner Noah Segan) and wiseguys (Matt O'Leary's clue-dispensing confidante, The Brain). Plus, of course, our world-weary gumshoe Brendan (exit Bogie, enter Joseph Gordon-Levitt), back from nursing a scarred heart in self-imposed exile (that is, eating lunch at the back of the school) to shake down the mystery of his ex-girlfriend's disappearance. Last seen electrifying Gregg Araki's paedo-drama Mysterious Skin, Gordon-Levitt here makes like the Hardy Boys' bad-ass kid brother. Slouching through the movie with shoulders hunched, hands shoved deep into his jacket pockets (is he packing heat?) and cynical wisecracks fizzing on his tongue, he's a walking geek-fantasy - the kind of don't-give-a-damn outsider who can ditch his glasses to soak up a parking-lot pasting from the jocks before picking himself up to sling a knockout haymaker.
"I got five good senses and I slept last night," bites Gordon-Levitt, as he squares up against the school's dope gang. "That puts me six up on all of you." Brendan's rumpus finally leads him into the meaty fists of Moose Malloy stand-in Tugger (Noah Fleiss) and the shadowy lair of his boss, Lukas Haas' ex-student drug-lord The Pin. We say "lair". We mean, of course, "his mum's house"...
Punctuating an ace lo-fiteen cast with just two adults, Johnson pulls his hipster revisionism with cine-savvy brilliance (Richard Roundtree's school vice-principal filling in for the ball-breaking police chief) and twitchy laughs (a tense meeting of murder and drugs pauses momentarily as The Pin's mother hands out milk and cookies). But, crucially, Johnson's dread-knotted mystery unravels wink-free, played straight up and for keeps. Embracing its low-budget grain, Brick's spare, evocative cinematography and jagged edits - right to the final cut - gradually fade the slashes of edgy black humour behind a tone prickling with menace. Bursts of action arrive with a wallop (including one of the most inventive chases you'll see this year), but the real bone-bruises come via racked images of uncertainty and isolation: grey skies, lost highways, deserted sports fields, rooms drowning in shadow and that eerie drainage tunnel at the mystery's epicenter.
Like every noir hero, Brendan - for all his slacker posturing - is in way too deep. A small, lonely figure in a big, black world, he spends the entire movie stranded in the margins of DoP Steve Yedlin's widescreen compositions or trapped in suffocating close-up as the plot's convolutions coil around him.
Johnson gets it, gets the wistful, doomy romanticism shared by noir and adolescence: no one gets away clean. So if the pay-off isn't the tectonic rug-pull you might hope for, that's sort of the point. In teen life, mini-dramas become heart-pulping epics. And, ever more so in Gen Y's media-rinsed cosmos, kids are the stars of their own imaginary movies, talking in movie-quotations, directing their own movie-lives. Fitting, then, that Brick even packs its own zinging movie-slang, a rat-a-tat argot in which stoners become "reef worms", cops become "bulls" and fuck-ups are "gum".
Stylishly nailing high-school as the free-fire zone of modern moral struggle, Brick's pulp universe is so immersive, so quotable, you half wonder if Johnson should have pitched it as the latest cult TV series (although the similarly etched but infinitely fluffier Veronica Mars got there first). But even if his film - a festival crowd-pumper since Sundance 2005 - has to wait for DVD to find its Donnie Darko-sized audience, you won't see a cooler movie this year. Beat the rush.
Witty, gripping and massively original, Brick is this year's cult hit, hands down. As Brendan would say, "Don't heel it."