Friday, February 18, 2011


Walk Away. Drop It.

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This post is part of the For the Love of Film (Noir): The Film Preservation Blogathon hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren. To donate to the fundraiser for The Film Noir Foundation, click here.

By VenetianBlond
First time director Rian Johnson walked away with the 2005 Sundance Special Jury Prize for originality of vision for his film Brick. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas, it was an attempt to film a noir but with a completely different set of visual cues. Rather than creating a 1940s detective in a rainy New York or Chicago, Johnson set his plot in motion in a modern Southern California high school. In the DVD commentary, Johnson admits that his script was on a knife edge-the slightest misstep in tone would have made it “dreadful.” However, apart from a couple of minor quibbles, I agree with the Sundance jury that he pulled it off.

Before the title, Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) is crouched at the mouth of a tunnel, staring at the body of a woman. After the title, she is seen placing a note into someone’s locker, and the next title is “Two Days Previous.” The flashback, of course, is a classic noir technique. The note sets up an increasingly desperate phone call, in which the woman, Brendan’s ex-girlfriend Emily, pleads for his help. They’re cut off before Emily can agree to meet him and Brendan begins a convoluted search. He gets information from Brain, a kid who sits in a hallway and seems to know everything about who’s eating lunch with whom and why. He also finds a scrap of an invitation to a popular rich girl’s party and he shows up. Everyone he talks to seems to know something and is incredibly reluctant to tell him anything.

He does eventually meet up with Emily, but she’s too scared to let him in on what is going on. She begs him to let her go, but he finds he can’t. In fact, he pickpockets a notebook from her in which he finds a clue that leads him to her body in the tunnel. He hears someone in the tunnel and pursues only to get knocked out. He’s now set on his path. In fact, he asks Brain to tell him to drop it, but then he enlists his help in getting to the bottom of what happened.

He also flashes back two months to when he and Emily broke up. Little half-clues lead him through the small-time drug dealing scene at the school, until he finds out about The Pin, as in Kingpin (Lukas Haas). He also finds out about the brick — a brick of heroin cut badly that killed an underling who took a little off the top. Emily was blamed for the debacle, although Brendan can’t believe that she was in that deep. He insinuates himself with The Pin so that he can stay close, and ends up attempting to mediate a rising gang war between The Pin and Tug. Tug is The Pin’s hired muscle, also involved with Emily, who had been administering harsh words without the words to Brendan throughout. In the end, it was the rich girl Laura who set Emily up to take the fall for the deadly heroin. Brendan, who earlier rebuffed Laura, saying he couldn’t trust her, plants the remainder of the brick in her locker and notifies the authorities, but Laura has her own knife to twist. In their final confrontation, she reveals that Emily was pregnant with his child. Brendan brings Laura down, but at a terrible cost.

The film is a little more than two hours long, so this recap naturally elides over many plot points and character developments. What’s interesting is that what seems like a gimmick actually works really well. On one level, the archetypes overlay onto high school characters: the femme fatale, the dupe, the muscle, the ringleader. But Brick works on other levels also. Johnson has his actors using language straight out of Hammett. “Keep your specs on,” “I’ll just stand here and bleed at you,” and one of my all-time favorite movie lines, “I got all five senses and I slept last night so that puts me six ahead of the lot of you,” are examples of the heightened speech used in the film. Would teenagers really speak that way?  Not really, but they are expert at developing their own speech patterns and slang in direct rebellion to “regular” speech. If anybody would be speaking strangely and using words that don’t make sense to anybody else, it would be a teenager.

Second, the production and filming mirror the noir style perfectly. In other words, they were broke. Johnson shopped his script around for years until he finally gave up and financed it himself with friends and family. For that reason, they used zooms instead of tracking shots. They used low-tech effects. They used the locations they could get access to, whether or not there was actually room for a camera. This created the conditions for a film that looks very much like the traditional noirs — with crazy angles and less than “perfect” lighting.

Third, Johnson said in the DVD commentary that the film was not meant to be realistic. The language is part of the signaling that the world of Brick is not supposed to reflect anyone's actual experience. It was not meant to be high school as much as it was meant to feel like high school. “When you are a teenager and you are in that world, you don’t have any perspective and it’s the most serious time in your life. Your head is completely encased in that fishbowl, and it IS life or death, these small things, because it’s your entire field of vision.” Even though we know from the beginning that Emily is dead, Brendan’s quest is not so far off from the real teenage experience. Why didn’t it work out? Why is she hanging out with those people? What does she see in that guy? Why can’t I figure ANYTHING out? In addition, where else would an unintended pregnancy resonate in the same way as it would in 1947? In high school, perhaps.

Now for the quibbles. There are two scenes in which Brendan’s world crosses the “real” world. In the first, he has an encounter with the vice principal, and in the other, he meets The Pin’s mom. The scene with Vice Principal Trueman (Richard Roundtree) is terrific. The vice principal’s noir analogue is the police chief on the hero’s trail. He indicates that Brendan has been in trouble before, has helped them out before, and that he can give Brendan only so much leeway. This scene was filmed in a real office, with the camera on the floor (or close to it) so the uniform upward angles make it look like a battle of wills between equals.

The other scene, with The Pin’s mom, doesn’t make much sense. She serves them orange juice, no wait, she’s so sorry, they don’t have orange juice…perhaps she’s meant to be the dippy dame. Upon several viewings, it still doesn’t seem to serve the plot, and is as jarring as the first time I saw it.

The other quibble is the final confrontation between Brendan and Laura. I loved that it was filmed in a tight clinch as they murmur to each other. “You want the whole tale? You want me to tell it to you?” Brendan says to Laura, and when he recounts what we’ve already seen or deduced, all the pacing and tension that came before dissipates. Thankfully, it does build up to some information we didn’t know, and then there is a cross and double-cross. It’s a tough scene, verging on too much tell and not much show.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review that the characters were hard to care about because they had lifestyles, not lives, although he makes the caveat that this could be said of many noir films. On the other hand, even when everything is mythic in its significance, if the director and the actors play everything totally straight, you can see the very real repercussions. They’re just kids and Emily is dead.

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Great review! Brick is one of my alltime favorite movies... I have to say I do like the scene with The Pin's mom, just because it's a refreshing moment of levity in an otherwise suffocatingly serious tone... it's just a moment to pause and catch a breath. And I always read to to be a wink-and-a-nod moment to let the audience know that you should be taking the movie too seriously, that the makers were also in on the joke.

- Brian P.

PS - I am not at all joking, but my Captcha for this comment is 'brickb'...
love love love this film. at first I didn't think I'd like it because there's such an odd disconnect between the setting and the way they talk. But when you just go with it, it works so well.
I love this film too - and it's an archetypal blueprint for a 'modern noir' (whatever the fook that is). Oh and I love the ditzy mom too: it's a fun way of explaining why the Pin is allowed to get away with drug-running and anything else he might like to do in his basement.
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