Whatever the happy-go-lucky bullshit spun by Friends Reunited and its ilk, school, for the majority of people, sucked big time, however much we like to reconfigure childhood memories as the “best days of our lives”. It’s a cut-throat environment which, as Rian Johnson, writer/director of the extraordinary Brick, alludes to in an interview on this DVD, dovetails neatly with the worlds of hard-boiled detective fiction and film noir.
By appropriating its slang-heavy patter and noir plot from the novels of Dashiell Hammett (Red Harvest, The Maltese Falcon) and transferring them to a contemporary Californian high school, Brick subverts two genres, resulting in a film that’s postmodern on one level, deliciously retro on another. And yet emerges as something unique... “It doesn’t represent what being a teenager is like,” Johnson says. “But maybe it represents a little more accurately what being a teenager feels like.”
Brick begins with a dead blonde lying face down in muddy water, hair fanned out like a smudged halo. The victim, Emily (Emilie De Raven), a good girl gone druggy, was the one-time girlfriend of our hero Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who, two days before, received a call from her asking for help. Delving first into her disappearance, then her murder, our amateur gumshoe stumbles around his coastal home town, giving almost as good as he gets and determined to “start shaking things up”. This, in true noir fashion, requires Brendan, abetted by misfit friend The Brain (Matt O’Leary), to ingratiate himself into his ex’s circle of dealers and druggies, coming up against the gamut of noir archetypes: ice queen Laura (Nora Zehetner), femme fatale Kara (Meagan Good), lovestruck sap Dode (Noah Segan), thuggish Tug (Noah Fleiss) and eccentric crime kingpin The Pin (Lukas Haas), who runs a drugs empire from the basement of his mum’s house. So far, so noir. Even Brendan’s terse relationship with his school’s assistant vice-principal (Shaft’s Richard Roundtree) echoes Bogart’s antagonistic chinwags with the cops who were forever trying to lean on him. That’s not to say Gordon-Levitt is even remotely trying to channel Bogey. Johnson and his leading man are too smart for that. But, as the director notes, Brendan is “going to be Sam Spade in 10 years from now.”
That the movie doesn’t implode under the weight of its influences is a tribute to Johnson and his excellent cast, who treat the material dead straight, without any recourse to camp or irony. And even though the dialogue (part teen-speak, part noir patois) can be as impenetrable as the spiralling plot, Johnson is clearly aware of his conventions and when to deviate from them. So, by eschewing the traditional noir motifs of deep shadows, guys in hats and moody black-and-white for the sunny environs of San Clemente, California (where he grew up) – and swapping the mean streets of LA for the hallways of his old high school – he edges the mood closer to the suburban paranoia of David Lynch.
As befits a film this dense and daring, the extras are a treat. While Johnson’s commentary was unavailable at press time, we are still gifted with a fascinating comparison between the director’s “chicken scratch” storyboards and the film itself. There’s also a number of deleted and extended scenes – he trimmed eight minutes after the film played Sundance, where it won an award for “Originality of Vision” – and an interview with Johnson covering all the bases. Throw in an amusing teenage home movie, a behind-the-scenes peek at his UK press tour, a pair of screen tests, and a featurette on the film’s score (created by Johnson’s cousin in his Bournemouth flat, using wine glasses and kitchenware) and you have a mightily impressive package.
Still, it’s the film you’ll find yourself revisiting. Like Memento and Donnie Darko, Brick gives up its secrets slyly. It’s fearlessly composed and adroitly executed. The noir knowingness and smartypants vernacular might prove to be a barrier for casual viewers, but give a little back and Brick really kicks.