A Deft Shadow of Noir Logic


Calling Rian Johnson’s teen indie a piece of stuntwork might seem faint praise, but try this thumbnail def: a high school noir, complete with Hammettian plot and a fearless fidelity to antiquated gangster patois. The wary hero (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), bitterly nursing heartbreak like a good Bogart, is lured into his ex-girlfriend’s 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 story is a deft shadow of noir logic—showing up at a party sends unspoken messages to “the right people,” and banter with the SoCal high school’s dean (Richard Roundtree) wittily echoes the shamus-cop intercourse of scores of postwar thrillers. The cynicism of noir is deployed as a near-tears metaphor for pre-adult isolation and self-destruction, and it’s such a simple fusion between potent American cultural ideas it feels sui generis. Johnson keeps his actors’ leashes tight, and Gordon-Levitt handles vast quantities of arch dialogue, much of it piercingly funny, with a Montgomery Clift–like earnestness. With deleted scenes, and a making-of doc.