Noir School Confidential

Focus Features/MovieWeb

Washington City Paper | April 7, 2006
Americans may not live in an empire, or even an axis, of evil—or so we’ve been told—but we sure do have a taste for the stuff. Ruthlessly unpredictable gangsters, deranged child rapists, and cannibalistic serial killers fill our screens, both large and small. Given this glut, it helps to have a sense of humor when foraying into our subconscious underworld. A cinematic trifecta of vice—drugs, gambling, and sex, with a side of murder in all three—Brick, Lucky Number Slevin, and Basic Instinct 2 offer a full inventory of iniquities, but they largely fail to treat them with a suitably wry attitude. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s the two that were directed by Brits that are fatally overeager.

First-time writer-director Rian Johnson’s Brick opens with a snippet of spaghetti-Western music, an ironic device often used in movies that transplant stark tales of good and evil to everyday suburban climes. This is not the film’s only neo-noir cliché, but it quickly becomes hard to keep track of—or care about—such infractions. Brick’s modern-high-school translation of Dashiell Hammett is simply too much fun. The opening scene, with deeply alienated teenager Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) contemplating a blonde corpse in a storm sewer, may seem too heavy—or too familiar. (River’s Edge, anyone?) But once the movie kicks into gear, it never falters, right up through the final credits, which are driven by a song so perfectly suited to the task that it would be wrong to identify it here.

The dead girl is Emily (Emilie de Ravin), and she’s the principal source of Brendan’s alienation. He’s been eating lunch alone ever since she broke up with him, seduced not by another guy but by the lure of drugs. (Some of which come, just so you know, in bricks.) The film slips into flashback to reveal that Emily had called Brendan just before she disappeared, asking for help. Now that she’s dead, it’s his duty to do what he can. With the help of his only friend—a nerdy brain called, yup, the Brain (Matt O’Leary)—Brendan begins to unravel Emily’s fate. Doing so requires talking with two clearly fatal femmes, Laura (Nora Zehetner) and Kara (Meagan Good), and ultimately infiltrating the drug gang led by the Pin (Lukas Haas), a cape-wearing, cane-flourishing dandy. The latter task means tangling with various athletes, enforcers, and other teenage beasts, so Brendan’s psychosomatic injuries are soon complemented by genuine bruises.

The point of these recurrent beatings is that Brendan is no Superman, although instinctively he is. He deciphers the myriad conspiracies of his school—a place so tough that the peace-keeping assistant vice principal is Richard “Shaft” Roundtree—and he plays the bad guys like chumps. It’s only the bad gals that, in classic noir fashion, Brendan can’t quite handle. Although he doesn’t trust Laura, he recklessly lets her get close to him. And one scene with Kara, who drips lies as she applies geisha makeup, makes the games-playing members of the drama club seem even more ominous than they probably did at your high school.

If Good is playing an intentionally over-the-top role, the wonder of Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan is that he seems entirely natural. Always in a spotless white T-shirt and spouting tough-guy dialogue that he renders as dramatically credible as it is conceptually absurd, he’s a classic loner in a world where it’s every kid for himself. (The only one of his classmates who has a visible parent is the Pin, whose mom cluelessly offers cereal and apple juice to her son’s gang members.) If the notion that Brendan is all alone in the world is a narcissistic fantasy, it’s one that nearly every middle-class adolescent has indulged at one time or another.

Reduced to its mix of film-noir and teen-flick plot points, including an unfortunately hackneyed final revelation, Brick is not all that remarkable. What carries it is unassailable confidence, a canny sense of style—Johnson is smart enough, for example, to forgo the expected voice-over commentary—and expert timing. Using stylish but not too showy dissolves, jump cuts, and wide-angle shots, the director evokes John Huston, Jean-Luc Godard, and John Hughes without resorting to slavish imitation, let alone parody. Although Brick doesn’t come out of nowhere, it does end up in a class of its own.

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