Hidden Gems: Brick
By Kyle Lee
October 18, 2016
“Do you trust me now?”
“Less than when I didn’t trust you before.”
“Brad was a sap. You weren't. You were with him, and so you were playing him. So you're a player. With you behind me I'd have to tie one eye up watching both your hands, and I can't spare it.”
“You’ve helped this office out before.”
“No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.”
Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Brick is an odd movie. Dialogue like that, and even more rapid fire exchanges that happen between the characters, are taken from the noir detective writings of people like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. But Brick was made in 2005, which puts it about 70 years behind the times when it comes to its dialogue style. There’s a music to this dialogue like there is to Shakespeare, and it goes a long way in setting up the style and feel of the movie. Also like Shakespeare, you don’t need to keep up with each and every word to get the story. It’s there not just to set up attitude and atmosphere, but for you to come back to it again and again to discover more nuances and references and things like that. And like has been done multiple times with the Bard’s work, Johnson sets his noir detective story in the world of modern high school.
The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, who in the opening scene we see observing a body laying in the shallow water of an overflow tunnel. The body is that of his recently ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Cut back to two days previous as Brendan receives a phone call from an obviously upset Em, asking for his help. But Brendan has trouble locating her and so begins his detective work that will lead him to her body and beyond in the next few days of his life. He crosses paths with all the usual archetypes of noir: junkies, drug dealers, hired muscle, information experts, unwanted attention from the authorities, and more than one femme fatale. Brendan is not afraid to dole out a punch, and takes many more than he probably would like. And in classic noir fashion, the plot becomes so convoluted that by the end we’re not quite sure if we have it straight, but it feels like we do and that’s what really matters.
Rian Johnson made Brick on a budget of $475,000, about 1.5% the money he later made the terrific Gordon-Levitt/Bruce Willis starrer Looper with, or roughly 0.2% of the budget he’ll likely be working with as writer/director of the next Star Wars movie. Johnson’s talents for dialogue, atmosphere, and working with actors was evident here at the very start. Gordon-Levitt has rarely been better (maybe in Mysterious Skin or The Lookout, which could both show up in this column in the future) and embodies the noir detective perfectly. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but that doesn’t keep him out of harm’s way. He plays everybody just as they’re trying to play him. He’s got it figured out, but has to watch and see if it plays out like he thinks it will. Although instead of the usual noir narration, Johnson has Brendan bounce his internal thoughts off of his informant, The Brain (Matt O’Leary).
The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. One of the biggest stand outs being Lukas Haas as The Pin, the drug kingpin of the area (“he’s old, like 26” Brain tells Brendan in one of their rapid fire exchanges). Haas gives the character a certain gravitas and believability, while also some humor in what is a slightly ridiculous role in a movie that otherwise doesn’t wink to the audience in the slightest. Rian Johnson understands this need for some humor as well, and maybe plays up the ridiculousness a bit too much, but never enough to totally throw off the atmosphere of the movie. The other big eye catcher is Nora Zehetner as Laura, our femme fatale. Zehetner gives Laura the intelligence to match Brendan, the deviousness to match The Pin, and a sweet sexiness to keep us off guard about what her intentions are and whose side she’s really on.
But the main star here, other than Gordon-Levitt, is the style borrowed from that '30s and '40s noir. Maybe my favorite thing is Brendan’s penchant for talking on a pay phone. Johnson has said that the production department had to put those pay phones there, since although they were ubiquitous in the '30s and '40s, in the age of cell phones there aren’t any around anymore, at least in Southern California where the movie was shot.
Classic detective noir is a genre I love, but I would not have thought of transitioning it to a high school setting as anything more than a gimmick. Yet the transition works seamlessly, as the archetypes of noir all fall in perfectly with the archetypes of high school. Characters like a two-faced drama queen can literally be in drama class now. What would be “word on the street” stuff in classic noir, is now standard high school gossip. Secret meetings in noir can be boiled down to who you have lunch with in high school. And the junkies and burn outs of noir are now, well, the junkies and burnouts of high school. And the seriousness of the goings on in noir are nothing to the importance of high school, when everything feels like the most serious thing that ever happened.
Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have both done bigger things since Brick, but I’m not sure they’ve done anything better. This little Hidden Gem isn’t unseen, but it’s underseen. Watch it, then watch it again to see what you missed the first time around. I notice new things in it every time.