The best debut features express a thrilling confidence so self-evident that it all but demands attention. Given that otherwise good first films are frequently plagued by rookie flaws or too-obvious debts to certain signpost influences, it’s still rare to see talent so fully formed even if their work is imperfect. Enter Rian Johnson’s “Brick,” a hardboiled detective story in the vein of Dashiell Hammet but set in a high school. It premiered at Sundance in January of 2005 and was released into theaters a little over a year later by Focus Features, eventually making almost $4 million on a budget of roughly $500,000. Though some critics grumbled at its affected cleverness, “Brick” received mostly positive reviews and eventually became something of a cult film, especially for fans of Johnson, who later directed the popular sci-fi thriller “Looper,” three of the best episodes of “Breaking Bad,” and is currently filming the new “Star Wars” movie. It may be tempting to look at “Brick” in retrospect and see a promising small-scale debut, but it’s really an introduction to a stunning new talent who traffics in genre yet sets his sights far beyond its confines.
High school student Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers a note in his locker from his ex-girlfriend Emily Kostich (Emilie de Ravin) directing him to a pay phone. Terrified and speaking in code, Emily asks Brendan for help, but her situation remains unclear. After Brendan digs deep into the halls of his suburban high school, finding leads from another ex-girlfriend Kara (Meagan Good), stoner clique leader Dode (Noah Segan), boorish jock Brad Bramish (Brian J. White), and his flirtatious girlfriend with shifting allegiances Laura (Nora Zehetner). Eventually, Emily turns up dead, and Brendan pledges to solve her murder with the help of his friend The Brain (Matt O’Leary) only to later find himself neck-deep into a dangerous drug ring run by “The Pin” (Lukas Haas), a physically disabled townie, and his tough Tug (Noah Fleiss). Though justice is eventually served, nobody gets out clean.
With its “Miller’s Crossing”-like narrative and ’40s noir dialogue (“bulls” for “cops”; “yegg” for “criminal”; and my personal favorite, “knives in my eyes” for “a headache”), it’s understandable some saw “Brick” as a stylistic exercise, but if taken at its word, the film never feels empty. The various competing agendas in detective fiction translate well to a high school setting, and the narrative stakes dovetail nicely with the heightened emotions of its adolescent characters. Furthermore, neither Johnson nor any of the actors wink at the film’s premise, both playing every plot turn and impassioned line delivery completely straight, insisting the audience receive it the same way. Johnson throws viewers into a seedy underworld that resembles previous ones but never quite feels like a copy, and with the help of career-best performances from Gordon-Levitt and Zehetner, both of whom excel at masking strong emotions behind steely exteriors, “Brick’s” style never gets in the way of its substance.
But besides the compelling script and the winning performances, it’s Johnson’s direction that is the real star of the film. From its very first minutes, Johnson conveys information visually, with everything from Brendan’s shock over the death of his ex to the lateness of Emily’s call communicated through clean, deliberate filmmaking that demonstrates restrained, yet noticeable confidence. (Read Mike D’Angelo’s Scenic Routes column on “Brick’s” opening, with annotations from Johnson himself, for a more in depth analysis.) Coupled with Johnson’s crafty in-camera effects and fluid editing style, not to mention Nathan Johnson’s eerie, pitch-perfect score and Steve Yedlin’s grimy, wide-angled cinematography, “Brick” acts like a mainstream motion picture without losing its shaggy indie feel, providing audiences with trust that they are in beyond-competent hands. Ultimately, “Brick” is a line-in-the-sand debut that earns its Originality of Vision award from Sundance with flying colors, but also introduced a fresh new talent that hasn’t yet reached the peak of his abilities. In other words, a great debut is a powerful thing.