A film review by Craig J. Koban



Rank: #14

BRICK jjjj

2006, R, 110 mins.

Brendan: Joseph Gordon-Levitt / The Pin: Lukas Haas / Laura Dannon: Nora Zehetner / The Brain: Matt O'Leary / Dode: Noah Segan / Tugger: Noah Fleiss / Emily Kostach: Emilie de Ravin / Kara: Meagan Good

Directed and written by Rian Johnson


Just when you thought that the modern cinematic machine was entirely bereft of original ideas, along comes BRICK - a little indie gem - into the mix to discard your entire moviegoing apathy. 

At first glance, the teasers for the film make it out to be yet another in a long assembly line of disposable teen movies.  Yes, the film is set in a high school and has every discernable type of reputable and disreputable adolescent, but what first time writer/director Rian Johnson does here is kind of subtle in its brilliance.  BRICK is a teen film, but it is also a murder mystery amalgamated with the vernacular and aesthetic milieu of a classic, 1940’s film noir suspense stories.  On a superficial level, this sounds like some sort of half-baked concoction of a gimmicky film.  Yet, within the first few minutes you grow less and less conscious and aware of the film's aesthetic artifice and instead get lost in the proceedings.

BRICK is one of those delightful and sublime experiences where you sort of lose yourself in the sheer absurdity of the proceedings.  It would have been so easy for Johnson to be rigidly slavish to the status quos for these types of teen flicks.  Thankfully - and most refreshingly - what he does here with the material is one of the most inventive and creative experiments that I have come across in many a moon.  Not satisfied with telling a dime-a-dozen dead teenager thriller (which are proliferating at the cineplexes like a decrepit plague), he centers his film in the present (21st Century middle America, in the film’s case - a high school in San Clemente) and populates it with familiar faces (young, teen stars), but it is his technique that is ingenious.  His teens don’t talk like modern ones do (oftentimes whose language uses every variation of the word “like” as a counterpoint to every thought).  His teens are perceptive, intelligent, and remarkably eloquent in their speech.  More specifically, they talk like P.I.'s and villains from 50-60 year old films.

If Sam Spade and Phillip Marlowe had a love child then he would most certainly come in the form of Brendan Frye (in a scene stealing and incredibly assured performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt).  He outwardly looks like a typical American teen (he walks with a slacker-esque slouch, has messy hair and a certain emotional detachment), but verbally he talks like he's a cunning, determined, and incredibly resourceful gumshoe that could have easily been in the classic noirs of Hollywood’s yesteryear, like THE MALTESE FALCON.  At one point during an altercation with some rather unruly teens, he lashes back, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head.  I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.”  Humphrey Bogart, even on his best day, would have been envious of this type of badass banter.

That’s the simplistic – and utterly fascinating – hook to BRICK.  It works as being such a wonderfully cohesive and synergetic stew of genre conventions.  Johnson gets an incredible amount of mileage with transporting a 1940’s sensibility and its stylistic trappings to a 2006 setting.  Not just Brendan, but almost all of the personas of BRICK spew out line after line of evocative and wonderfully conceived, hard edged dialogue that demonstrates Johnson’s complete adherence (and mastery) of the poetic frills of past film noirs.  All of these kids would be right at home as shady adult characters out of a Raymond Chandler novel.  They live adult lives in a teen landscape.  They, like their noir counterparts, inhabit the style of those films.  Sure, no teen on the planet would ever have exchanges like they do in the film (like “Do you trust me now,” a shadowy girl asks Brendan. “Less than when I didn’t trust you before,” he dryly responds), but realism is not the point here.  BRICK is an exercise is entrenching familiar settings and characters with a post-modern feel that reveals the maker’s intelligence and fondness for classic films of the past.  For these reasons, the film is an unequivocal triumph as a smart and crafty neo-noir that puts its young director firmly on the map of filmmakers to watch for.

It’s not just in the way the characters talk that’s so entertaining (this is a film to be savored for the dialogue, make no mistake about it), but it’s the small, subtler touches as well.  We have many of the other obligatory staples of the hard-nosed crime sagas of the past.  We get the world weary and pensive private eye; his colleague that is the “brains” of their dynamic duo that can get information from the streets at the drop of a hart; a luscious and slinky femme fatale that may or may not be bad news; the muscle-bound goons that only like to inflict pain first and ask questions later; and finally there is the shadowy and enigmatic villain, who in this case wears a flowing cape, walks with a cane and a limp, and has a black bird on his mailbox (an obvious reference to THE MALTESE FALCON).  BRICK could have easily been made 60 years ago, but most noirs of the 40’s and 50’s never substituted dark and murky alleys for bright high school corridors and grass covered football fields.  Oh, and Sydney Greenstreet never lived in his parent’s basement and had Humphrey Bogart’s cagey investigator over for some of his mother’s scrumptious milk and cookies.

The film has the look and bright sheen of a modern teen flick, but the tone and mood is just as dark and eerie as any Sam Spade murder thriller.  The movie’s opening shot establishes this well, as we see the hero in Brendan discovering the body of his former girlfriend in a ditch near a large drainpipe.  Very soon, he notices something in the desolate tunnel.  Was it a voice of someone, the sound of someone moving, or – more importantly – was it the killer himself?  In a brief flashback we see Brendan in a phone booth taking a call from the girl, Emily (Emilie de Ravin) who seems to be in an emotional crisis.  She soon cries over the phone line and Brendan sees a dark car drive by with her in it.  Who was in the car with her?  Her kidnapper?  Her killer?  Or both?

It's here where the film firmly grounds itself in essence of a classic Golden Age crime story.  Brendan soon becomes a one man, private dick army and goes to incredible lengths to find out what has happened to his former love.  He uses everything in his arsenal, like his shrewd detective skills, his “connections” (like his inside man for information, The Brain, played by Matt O’Leary) and his on-again, off again cozy relationship with “The Man,” in this case his “VP” (Vice Principal), played by none other than 1970's street smart ass kicker himself, Richard “Shaft” Roundtree.  Brendan knows how to play “The Man” for all the right angles, and his scenes with Roundtree are delightfully droll in how they play off of the relationship between police captains and PI’s in older movies.  At one point, when Brendan smells something fishy from his VP, he tells him, in a satiric vein, “No more of these informal chats!  If you have a disciplinary issue with me, write me up or suspend me and I'll see you at the Parent-Teacher conference.”

Brendan’s journey to solving this mystery takes him on a familiar path towards genre inspired lowlifes and pesky dames.  He compiles a list of usual suspects along the way, like the slimy Dode (Noah Seagan), who was Emily’s newest boyfriend.  Then there is Tugger (Noah Fleiss) who is a hulking brute that likes to use his fists instead of his mouth.  There's also the film’s much needed femme fatale, Kara (Meagan Good), an “old flame” of Brendan’s.  There's also another girl thrown into the mix, the sexy and sultry Laura (Nora Zehetner), who may not seem to be good or bad, but develops an attraction to Brendan.  Finally, there is the villain of the piece in the form of The Pin (far removed from his child performance in WITNESS, Lukas Haas), who is a quietly menacing 26-year-old drug dealer whose missing “brick” of heroin just may be the final piece of the puzzle that Brendan needs to crack the case once and for all.

If in the improper frame of mind, some may narrowly perceive BRICK to be one long-winded film “stunt.”  It's most assuredly a real jolt at first to see the young characters speak in dialogue that that is a million miles removed from reality.  However, as the film progresses the hardboiled dialogue becomes digestible and incredibly infectious.  It’s a sheer joy to see a film occupied by teens that gives them lines of audacity, wit, and sophistication.  The words they say are weirdly expressive and redolent, which is delivered with pitch perfect timing and modulation by all of the stars.  Johnson, no doubt, made his cast take in hours of classic noirs so they could get a feel for the cadence, flow, and delivery of the dialogue.  The effect in BRICK is kind of brilliantly polished where the young 21st Century teens truly inhabit personas that should live in times and places of darker edge and attitude.  The rapid fire and terrifically colorful lingo in BRICK reminds viewers of the power that a well oiled script can have on a film’s overall success.

Beyond the words that are spoken, Johnson does an exemplary job of truly immersing us in the film’s provocative and hypnotizing story.  The overall structure and plot of the film is somewhat convoluted, but I guess that's only echoing what is going on in the mind of Brendan as he is desperately trying to discover the truth behind Emily’s murder.  The mystery progresses and unfolds in a fairly straightforward manner once all of the pieces start morphing into place, but another one of the sheer pleasures of BRICK is seeing the manner with which things are revealed, discoveries are made, relationships are connected, and how final conclusions are made.  Johnson, an obvious student and lover of pulp fiction and detective yarns, knows how to tantalize his audience by leading them on ever so slightly.  By the end of the film it may be difficult for even us to recall all of the little details and the reasons as to why Emily died.  Yet, logic is besides the point here.  BRICK is much more concerned with atmosphere and ambiance, not common sense. 

For a first time filmmaker that used very limited resources (a low budget and a simple home PC for editing), writer/director Rian Johnson’s debut in BRICK is a small little masterpiece of film economy and resourcefulness.  His sharp, inventive, and wickedly audacious hybrid of the modern teen film with the layers of classic Sam Spade 1940’s film noirs is something to be savored throughout its breezy 110 minutes.  If John Hughes, David Lynch, and John Huston made a film with teenage clones of famous detectives that spoke with the eloquence and spiritedness of the personas from Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler novels then BRICK would be the result.  Clever is almost too simple of a descriptor for the film.  As a work that artfully reinterprets not one, but two very familiar genres, BRICK is as invigorating as anything I’ve seen in 2006.  It takes a recognizable landscape and setting and completely transforms it.  For that, BRICK deserves high accolades for being a daring gamble that pays off in big ways.  You may question its style early on, by the film earns your respect for its boldness and cleverness and unbridled ingenuity.


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