Fear and desire, paranoia and lost innocence, sex and violence, betrayal and revenge… The mean streets of film noir? Or the school daze of adolescence? Brilliantly spliced and sutured in Rian Johnson’s ultra-cool indie debut, they’re parallel universes with a perfect fit. Teen noir? Could be a gimmick. But Brick’s opening scene of a dead body face-down in the water is the closest it comes to film-nerd shot homage. Johnson’s genre-riffing mystery thriller is much smarter than that.
Unlike postmodern Coen masterpiece Miller’s Crossing (literally a gangster film about being a gangster film) or neo-noir Chinatown (‘30s noir autopsied by the camera-eye of the ‘70s), Johnson filters the hard-noir detective genre through the bi-focals of fraught teen-age. Ripping freely from the pages of Dashiell Hammett, Brick’s dread-knotted mystery finds every hardboiled archetype budding in high-school’s social strata: femme fatales (Meagan Good’s drama-queen man-eater), gangster’s molls (Nora Zehetner’s rich-girl sophisticate), deadbeats (the bike-shed stoners) and insiders (Matt O’Leary’s clue-dispensing confident The Brain).
Plus, of course, our world-weary gumshoe Brenden (exit Bogie, enter Joseph Gordon-Levitt), back from self-imposed exile (that is, eating lunch at the back of the school) to shake down the mystery of his ex-girlfriend’s disappearance. Last seen electrifying Gregg Araki’s paedo-drama Mysterious Skin, Levitt here makes like the Hardy Boys gone hardcore. Slouching through the movie with shoulders hunched, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his jacket (is he packing heat?) and cynical wise-cracks sitting on his tongue, he’s a walking geek-fantasy – a don’t-give-a-damn outsider who ditch his glasses to soak up a parking-lot pasting from the jocks before picking himself up to sling a knockout haymaker. “I got five good senses and I slept last night,” bites Levit as he squares up against the school’s dope gang. “That puts me six up on all of you.” Brenden’s rumpus finally leads him on to the meaty fists of Moose Malloy stand-in Tugger (Noah Fleiss) and into the lair of his boss, Lukas Hass’ ex-student drug-lord The Pin. We say “lair”. We mean “his mum’s house”.
Puncturing his genre-splice with just two adults, Johnson pulls his hipster revisionism with cine-savvy brilliance (Richard Rountree’s school vice-principal fills in for the ball-breaking police chief) and twitchy laughs (a fraught meeting of murder and drugs pauses momentarily as The Pin’s mother hands out milk and cookies). But, crucially, Brick’s mystery unravels wink-free, played straight up and for keeps. Embracing it’s low-budget grain, Brick’s spare, evocative cinematography and jagged edits – right to the final cut – gradually fade the slashes of edgy black humour behind a tone prickling with menace.
Bursts of action arrive with a wallop (including one of the most inventive chases you’ll see this year), but the real bone-bruises come via racked images of uncertainty and loneliness: grey skies, lost highways, deserted sports fields, rooms drowning in shadow and an eerie drainage tunnel at the mystery’s epicenter. “The tunnel at the end of the light” is what screenwriter Robert Towne called Chinatown’s ending. Johnson must have been taking notes.
Like every noir hero, Brendan – for all his slacker posturing – is in way too deep. A small, lonely figure in a big, black world, he spends the entire movie stranded in the margins of DoP Steve Yedlin’s widescreen compositions or trapped in suffocating close-up as the plot’s convolution’s coils around him.
Johnson gets it all right, gets the wistful, doomy romantisicsm shared by noir and adolescence: no one get away clean. So if the mystery’s payoff isn’t the tectonic rug-pull you might hope for, that’s sort of the point. In teen life, mini-dramas become heart-pulping epics. And, ever more so in Gen Y’s media-saturated culture, kids are the stars of their own imaginary movies, talking in movie-quotations, directing the own movie-lives. Fitting, then, that Brick even packs its own movie-slang, a rat-a-tat argot in which stoners become “reef worms”, cops become “bulls” and fuck-ups are “gum”.
Nailing high-school as an amoral war zone, Brick’s hermetic universe is so immersive, so quotable, you half wonder if Johnson should have pitched it as the newest cult hipster TV series instead. But even if his film – a festival crowd-pumper since Sundance 2005 – never finds it’s Donnie Darko-sized audience, you won’t see a cooler movie.
Publication: Total Film