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A Neo-Noir High School Tale: Rian Johnson’s “Brick”

A Neo-Noir High School Tale: Rian Johnson's "Brick"

Maybe it says more about the state of American cinema than my own viewing habits, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie as purely and perfectly entertaining as Rian Johnson‘s Sundance prize-winning debut feature, “Brick.” No slight meant to the writer-director–who happily harbors no pretensions to deeper inquiries with his darkly giddy foray–as he succeeds where Hollywood so often fails with this slick, smart film meant solely for our simple enjoyment.

When “Brick” opens on a shot of Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, dazzlingly continuing on a path towards the obliteration of his former sitcom cutesiness) staring at the body of dead ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin, as on “Lost” aptly playing the girl the boy wants to save), a range of comparisons crop up: “River’s Edge,” more than likely, along with recent teen coming-of-age movies like “Mean Creek,” wherein a group of friends find the process of maturation hastened after the killing of one by another. But as “Brick” progresses in its precisely modulated fashion, we soon learn that this isn’t that kind of movie.

Stylized and snappy, “Brick” comes at you screwball-comedy fast, with the clever wordiness emphasized in the trailer through the simultaneous subtitling of particular declarations. At first the nimble quickness of the characters vaguely disconcerts, so far is it from the awkward gawkiness that is the province of typical teenagers. This boisterous wordplay hearkens back to the old-school (according to the press notes, Johnson had his cast watch Billy Wilder movies in order to convey the tenor of repartee sought), and lends the impression of teens way too cool for school. Yet lacking that gratingly dopey “Dawson’s Creek” brand of ironic distance, this smooth-beyond-their-years crowd still somehow seems as authentically bound up in themselves as befitting the Noxema contingent.

His initial veneer of nerdiness giving way under the weight of Gordon-Levitt’s charisma, unlikely sleuth Brendan (he prudently folds his glasses away in their case before engaging in a fist fight) navigates cliquish loyalties in his search for the killer. At first, you look for larger meanings in Johnson’s relocation of noir conventions to high school–what is he saying with this revision?–then slowly let go and allow yourself to settle comfortably into the rhythms of a unique universe. And you begin to realize that the strange, insular world of high school–with its bullies, murky motivations, and culture of gossip–actually lends itself well to the darker dictates of the whodunit. Utilizing certain tropes of the genre (canted angles, double entendres, and, of course, the femme fatale), while freeing itself from others (claustrophobic tendencies here give way to wide-open spaces and noir’s characteristic chiaroscuro nightscapes are replaced with the perpetual glare of the California sun in your eyes), this experiment could’ve gone horribly awry in the wrong hands; instead it easily achieves its intended spark.

Operating at a remove from reality, this dedicated non-naturalism isn’t quite pronounced enough to be labeled with as “surreal” (though it does carry intriguing echoes of “Twin Peaks,” with its beautiful blond found mysteriously dead in the water, and the similar course of sex and drugs she apparently ran). But, though borrowing from the old, “Brick'”s tonal peculiarity more closely resembles the very modern visual and temporal maneuverings of Wes Anderson. Surprising tableaux infuse the film with muted cleverness: Our introduction to drug-runner “The Pin” (Lukas Haas), forebodingly underlit in the household basement a la Brando in “The Godfather,” is hilariously juxtaposed with a brightly sunlit scene upstairs where his mother putters around and offers the kids a round of country-style orange juice.

If, perhaps, the plot occasionally feels too convoluted, well, the best noirs often do; what happens seems almost beside the point when such high style is on display. Coming out of a movie season rewardingly yet inescapably bound up in various politics of one kind or another, it just feels good to take a break with a popcorn flick that doesn’t insult your intelligence but, in fact, rewards you for it. After casting off the winter coats, “Brick” feels like exactly what the doctor ordered.

[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer and maintains the blog artflickchick.]

A scene from Rian Johnson’s “Brick.” Photo by Steve Yedlin and courtesy of Focus Features.

Take 2
By James Crawford

Now that Rian Johnson has laid it bare, film noir seems the perfect idiom for expressing deluded grandeur with which adolescents view their own lives. “Dawson’s Creek”‘s precociously prolix characters just about exhausted the bombast of teenage angst, but Johnson’s “Brick” is more satisfying on an emotional and structural level. The film is the quintessential postmodern both/and drama; it’s about sympathizing with the kids caught up in a time of life when petty slights take on Machiavellian import, but also about revealing their folly as well. Johnson undercuts the brooding intensity of high school gangbangers, clenched jaws grinding, by having Lukas Haas‘s mum lurk in the background, pouring juice from a porcelain chicken-head jug. “Brick” revels in the gaudy machine-gun patter borrowed from Hammett and Chandler and also addresses the limits and artifice of his own schema. Laura (Nora Zehetner), cast in the femme fatale role, is a mess of willfully assembled contradictions: though coolly inscrutable, her face is too impish to be fully seductive; her figure not quite voluptuous enough to fill out the flaming red China-doll dress that serves as a familiar totem of dangerous desire. These reflexive moments keep the film from becoming a narcissistic exercise in generic cross-pollination conducted purely for its own sake.

Even so, “Brick” is overlong by about half an hour as it plods to its heavily foreshadowed conclusion. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the primary reason that the film stays buoyant as long as it does. Brendan is all internal–brooding and stoic–and is tinged with a layer of distant regret that gnaws just below the surface. With his combustible, feral mean streak, the character couldn’t be more different from the lithe, outwardly sexual being he played in “Mysterious Skin.” With this performance, Gordon-Levitt is quickly asserting himself as the best young chameleon working in independent film.

[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]

A scene from Rian Johnson’s “Brick.” Photo by Steve Yedlin and courtesy of Focus Features.

Take 3
By Nicolas Rapold

Where’s the “original vision” in an update of film noir to the teen set, surely one of the most common Awesome Ideas any worshipful film school student (or bored tween-sitcom writer) must consider? More to the point: What’s the point of a film noir without style or mood? Rian Johnson’s “Brick” is the definition of a tedious exercise, true to the best film noir only in having a plot you could forget to care about, except without the essential slow burn or chiaroscuro morality. Joseph Gordon-Levitt can handle the savoir-faire of a shamus, but he and his co-stars grind to a halt every time whenever they must tongue-twist through painfully cute dialogue that sounds like it’s been generated with mindless density by one of those krazy jargon websites (even the rainiest film noirs had the sense to prune down the hard-boiledese). Meanwhile, a Kewpie Doll of a rich femme fatale (Nora Zehetner) moons her way through with the mystique of the living dead, and the entire project undermines its own semblance of cool by constant recourse to sub-“Rushmore” jolts of precious precociousness (e.g., a drug kingpin whose mother cheerfully serves everyone cookies and juice). Nobody could entirely screw up the usual supporting cast of mugs, though, the highlight being an insecure falling-star football player who tells and retells just how coach missed the boat. Plus, there’s a neat lighting trick involving a mirror.

Forgive the emphasis on the neo-noir heritage whose pinstripe coattails Johnson hopes to grab, but I can’t improve on Amy Taubin’s critique that the classic noir POV is earned through experience and therefore wilts transplanted to posturing high schoolers. And if I want to enter their hermetic world, I can just turn on the TV for the latest overwritten “really smart, actually” soap.

[Nicolas Rapold is a Reverse Shot staff writer, the assistant editor of Film Comment, the film editor of Stop Smiling, and a regular contributor to the New York Sun.]

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