A roguish, nerdy looking adolescent, spectacled and unkempt, trots across the parking lot to a gang of kids camped around a convertible. Their focus is on the letterman trumpeting about his football skills, the coach who refuses to acknowledge them, and the team that he could whoop single-handedly. As the rogue, Brendan Frye (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), sits on the edge of the convertible, the car sinks slightly, and all eyes turn on him. He stands up to the letterman the only way a nerd could: after hearing the letterman say, "Yeah," a half dozen times repeatedly, Brendan tells him to look it up in the thesaurus: "Its under 'Y'," Brendan reminds him. Challenged to a fistfight, the roguish nerd trumps the letterman again, leaving him bruised on the pavement. Walking away, a late spectator asks him, "Was there a fight?" Brendan coolly replies, "Yeah, there was."
If this scenario seems like the fantasies of a marginalized high-schooler with a fondness for all things hardboiled, then youre dead on: Rian Johnson's Brick (2005) assumes the semi-important mindset of adolescence and runs with it. The film is deliberate--for better or for worse--about everything in it. It's a series of winks at the audience and nods to Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett, and a thousand-and-one black and white gems that make up the film noir canon.
In the first moments of the movie, we are privy to a hidden moment that stays that way until well into the movie. Brendan discovers a blonde dead in the gutter--a secret grotto in front of a darkened cave. Rian Johnson, the film's writer and director, takes us back two days earlier to a phone call Brendan received from the blonde in the opening scene. She's scared out of her mind, too much so to tell him why, but she wants his help. The remainder of Brick centers around the who, what, when, where, why and how of all this: the movie is about answering questions.
What unfolds is a veritable checklist of noir must-haves: femme fatales, tough guys and lingo that exists purely for the reason of fulfilling some hardboiled desires that were aroused in the public consciousness sometime in the late 1920s and have yet to be fulfilled. Much like Mike Hammer in Spillane's Kiss Me Deadly, Brendan uncovers a seedy drug ring among the elite--this time high school rich kids rather the Mafia big-shots--with a missing bundle of dope at the center of it all.
In midst of this fantasy, classes, teachers and parents seem to be almost lost. They appear only occasionally: a mother who serves Brendan apple juice after being beaten by her son in the basement; a principal who tries to tap Brendan for information; and, in the dialogue, references to homeroom and parent-teacher conferences. Humorous asides out-of-place within the genre, they are supposed to signal self-awareness within the film, reminding us that movie is taking itself in stride, and we should take it likewise.
Only I can't. Its derivations and allusions make the film trite, not intelligent. Brick is not so much a part of any foundation for new cinema as it is another piece on the top of a firmly established pile. It doesn't so much explore a genre as much as transplant it, the way a spoof or satire would. In fact, Brick functions in the gray area between Godard's Band of Outsiders (1964) and your friend's gangster movie you acted in during high school.
Where Brick runs astray is when it eschews the organic for the contrived, when it opts to do what has been done before even when it is not in the story's capacity to do so. Brendan's motivation, for instance, remains unconvincing: does he seek out the woman's killers because he loves her, or because it is neccesary for the story to unfold? (Just as it unnecessarily for the protagonist to have a brainy know-it-all, ironically named Brain, and for every woman to be sex-crazed...) The characters that make up the drug-ring seem to be in such a spiral that Brendan's presence hardly has an impact: it is as though the shoot-out climax would have happened regardless of Brendan's involvement (only without him, the camera would not have been there).
What a film like David Cronenberg's A History of Violence (2005) offers that Brick does not is a complex mystery that works above the level of referential hee-haw that the latter is content with. There is a moment of revelation in Cronenberg's film that completely changes the main character; a similar revelation in Johnson's film is nowhere near as enlightening: when the darker side is revealed, it may be unexpected, but it certainly doesn't change much, expecting a few more issues that remain aggrivatingly unexplored.
Ultimately what was so unsatisfying about Brick is that its high-school, middle-class setting, which the film calls attention to so often, isn't dealt with in any insightful manner. Excepting for a few minor jokes (the funniest being an unknowing mother serving milk to a group of thugs crowding her living room in the middle of the night) it remains painfully in the background. The story, and especially the characters, are low-relief in the worst way: they're shallow because of flaw, not because of circumstance. And this is one facet that, regardless of intention, is inexcusable.
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