Dashiell Hammett goes to high school—the perfect studio pitch. Yet after wowing ’em at the film fests, Rian Johnson’s knockout debut as writer and director, Brick, languished in theaters and on DVD. It took a bunk, as Hammett mighta said, and wound up wearing a wooden kimono.
Johnson, who wrote Brick when he was 20 and shot it after he’d passed 30, kind of expected that. He knew there were plenty of people who didn’t dig his movie—who said it was too arch, nothing but a smarty-pants put-on starring kiddies playing shamus-and-dames dress-up while spitting black-and-white dialogue out of their Technicolor yaps. He knew the risks of flashing SoCal sunshine on pitch-black noir. And he knew it wasn’t going to be easy convincing an audience that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was Humphrey Bogart— a gumshoe in tennis shoes.
“Definitely, people tend to go one way or the other with
Brick,” Johnson says now. “One of the things people are turned off by is the fact that these are high schoolers acting like adults.”
Ironic, because Brick is not only one of the year’s best movies, but among the greatest high school movies ever made—deserving of its place in the trophy case alongside the likes of Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles, even Rebel Without a Cause. Yeah, yeah—Johnson’s got a gimmick. But barely concealed beneath the ironic quotation marks is your high school experience, complete with jocks, mathletes, stoners, and loners.
“Look at a movie like Heathers,” says Johnson of Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters’s 1989 film. “When I watched it when I was younger, even though there was all this ridiculous violence and the stakes were life or death, it made sense to me. It captured the way high school feels—that intensity and that insane level of ‘If this friendship falls apart, my life does too.'”