Brickis a film so desperate to dazzle you with its ingenuity that you sit through the first half-hour or so feeling like you're watching a juggler as he strains to keep one chainsaw too many flying through the air. It's impressive but exhausting, and it takes a while for you to spot the intelligent and surprisingly affecting little movie under all that ostentatious cleverness. And how is Brick clever? Oh, let us count the ways:
Its audacious central conceit. This is a film-noir thriller, very much in the mold of the old Bogart classics, but updated to modern times and set amongst the students of an Orange County high school. It sounds like a natural setup for a comedy, but writer-director Rian Johnson plays it absolutely straight—and the gimmick works remarkably well. The world-weary gumshoe becomes a just-as-world-weary high school burnout, blowing off trig class so he can track down whoever killed the girl he loved. Instead of sparring with the chief of police, he spars with the school's vice principal. Instead of getting caught up in the machinations of an aged, sickly crime boss who operates out of a grand estate, he gets caught up in the machinations of a 28-year-old (aged as far as high school kids are concerned), sickly crime boss who operates out of a suburban dining room. It's a very tricky thing, sustaining a gimmick this peculiar for the length of an entire feature, and somehow Johnson makes it work.
The super-quirky dialogue. Any film critic knows it's rarely a good sign when a PR rep takes you aside before a screening and hands you a glossary explaining the film's slang. It's a sure indication that somebody in the chain of command lacks confidence in the film's ability to be understood on its own terms, and it inevitably puts you on your guard. (What are you supposed to do, sit there in the dark with a penlight, using the glossary to decode the dialogue?) Brick's dialogue is a weird mix of '40s tough guy, '90s hip-hop and jargon of Johnson's own invention, resulting in occasionally awkward lines like "It's duck soup for you yeggs." (Where's that damn glossary again?) Once you get into the flow of it, though, it starts to make sense, and eventually you hardly notice it. Sometimes it's even got a certain punch-drunk poetry to it. But some made-up dialects—say, the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange—are worth the effort it takes to figure them out. Brick too often just makes you long for subtitles.
The flashy look. The predictable thing would've been to go for the long shadows and sunset-through-venetian-blinds cool of classic noir pictures, but Johnson takes an entirely different tack, playing up the broad streets and sunshiney lonesomeness of his native OC. There is a breathlessly effective chase scene across the grounds of San Clemente High School, made all the more terrifying by the blandly familiar, institutional reality of the place. There are several fight scenes set in vast parking lots baking beneath the Southern California sun, and you can almost feel that familiar strip-mall asphalt beneath your feet. Come to think of it, Johnson is often a lot more effective as a filmmaker when he shuts up with the cute talky-talk and just smacks your senses around: he's got a great eye and does wonderful things with sound (at several points, his expertly deployed crunches and booms keep you perched on the edge of your seat even when the screen goes black).
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Its tricksy plot. I'm still not entirely sure what was going on in this movie, who was played for a fool and who did the playing. Then again, The Maltese Falcon also stubbornly refuses to make sense no matter how carefully you try to untangle it, and I suppose that's sort of the point. Brick keeps you hooked even as its narrative particulars slip through your fingers, putting it in the company of some of the great noir pictures.
Johnson was fortunate (or shrewd) in his casting, peopling the film with young talents who really sell this potentially laughable material. Third Rock From the Sun's Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a surprising natural as the film's scrawny tough guy, an inconspicuous little geek with a right cross that'll knock you flat. Lost's Emilie de Ravin is likewise effective in her smallish role as the girl whose sad, soggy, drainage-ditch demise opens the film and sets our hero on his troubled path, while Lukas Haas is perfect as the local crime boss, sending up generations of noir bad guys as he hatches his plots while his mom serves him juice. He manages to be simultaneously funny and sinister. He also achieves some genuine pathos as he uses his cane to hobble along the beach at sunset, dorkily discussing Tolkien; he's an old man before his time, and a little boy lost.
With Brick, Johnson has announced himself—loudly—as a talent to watch. Here's hoping that with his next picture, he treats us to more of that offbeat talent but a little less of the announcing.
BRICK WAS WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY RIAN JOHNSON; PRODUCED BY RAM BERGMAN AND MARK G. MATHIS. AT EDWARDS UNIVERSITY, IRVINE.