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Calling Rian Johnson’s teen indie Brick a piece of stuntwork might seem tantamount to hitting it with a pie, but it’s a high-speed wheelie of a strangely daring and say-it-couldn’t-be-done variety. Try a thumbnail definition on for size: a high school noir, complete with Hammettian plot and a fearless fidelity to antiquated gangster patois.
Scary, isn’t it? Brick represents an impossible dream, though: the reuse—with conviction —of cinema’s most calloused and beloved genre as applied to contemporary middle-class life. Johnson is drop-dead serious, and the strategy’s unavoidable irony is buried so deeply it’s nearly possible to forget it altogether. The hair may thin considerably under Brick‘s hat after a while, and Hammett redone remains Hammett half done, but while the plates are in the air, it’s a spectacle of nerve.
We’re given little reason for hope at the outset, with a found corpse and a brooding loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) contemplating grief and guilt. Flashing back, Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan, bitterly nursing heartbreak like a good Bogart, is lured into his ex-girlfriend’s drug-dealing-hophead troubles with a single mysterious phone call; thereafter, he reconnoiters, figuring out “who she’s been eating with,” how deeply she was involved with local drug kingpin The Pin (Lukas Haas), and why she was killed. Every step of the process is a deft shadow of noir logic—just showing up at the right party, or beating the tar out of the right thug, sends unspoken messages to “the right people,” and Brendan’s relationship with the SoCal high school’s law-and-order dean (Richard Roundtree) wittily echoes the shamus-cop intercourse of scores of postwar thrillers.
Classes are never attended, the characters occupy the town’s empty fringelands and alleys, and parents, as in Peanuts, are all but invisible. At times the jazzy, tougher-than-leather lingo feels like a pose, but most of the time Johnson keeps his actors’ leash viciously tight, and no one riffs—they all fucking mean it, particularly Gordon-Levitt, who handles vast quantities of arch dialogue, much of it piercingly funny, with a Montgomery Clift–like earnestness. (“I gave you Jared to see him eaten,” Brendan tells the dean, “not to see you fed.”) Blessedly, Johnson does not indulge in narration. But what’s most beautiful about Brick is the consistency with which the yesteryear dynamics are used to backlight and dramatize teenage angst. The Chandlerian society femme with a yen for the outsider hero is a rich bitch with absent parents; Mr. Big is an affected pusher who maintains an artificial air of menace only when he’s not in his mother’s kitchen, being served iced tea. Instead of cheap hotel rooms, we get cheap suburban bedrooms; if Brendan is no longer “in” but “out,” it’s with the school’s power clique, not the mob. The cynicism of noir is deployed as a near-tears metaphor for pre-adult isolation, insecurity, and self-destruction, and it’s such simple fusion between potent American cultural ideas it feels sui generis.
There are potholes: Johnson layers in drippy nonstop mood music, Gordon-Levitt’s
hero spends a third of the movie doubled over with an unexplained illness, and the Red Harvest–y plot doesn’t yield any surprises we haven’t already seen get dealt from the deck bottom in 75 years of crime fiction. More than that, the movie’s very concept keeps it limited and predictable, which is likely to be the tithe you have to pay for noir if it’s not 1948 and you’re not Nicholas Ray. But I didn’t see Brick coming—and the question dangles about how young audiences not schooled in the real McCoy will fathom its fusty style. To modern kids only and literally wired to each other and the world through corporatized entertainment forms, maybe the hard-boiled existentialist vibe will seem like second nature.