“No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they’d trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we’re doing this I want the whole story. No cops, not for a bit.”
There is a reason film noir will never die as a film genre: noir is a perfectly cinematic world, littered with dark shadows, characters who are ambiguous, tragic and electric at the same time, the thrill of the detective’s chase and the criminals they are chasing, and language so pungent and stylized that the words feel more like bullets than the ones fired from the ever-present guns.
But like all genres, noir can get stagnant; occasionally you need a visionary’s perspective to bring it back to life, and bring something new to the table. “The Maltese Falcon,” both Dashiell Hammett’s novel and John Huston’s film, exposed the fragility of human decency in the face of greed. “Chinatown” saw Roman Polanski and writer Robert Towne re-wire it for America’s early-70’s hangover and the apathy and cynicism that defined it. Curtis Hanson’s “L.A. Confidential” taunted the notion of “heroism” by finding it in the cess-pool of corruption, and Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” shattered investigative procedure and narrative continuity into a million pieces that the central character could never re-assemble. In 2006, a first-time filmmaker named Rian Johnson made a little movie called “Brick,” which did something even more audacious: set a hard-boiled Chandler-esque detective story in a modern-day California high school.
That notion may sound ridiculous at first. How could crime noir work in a California high school, two things that have nothing in common? I mean, noir is defined by a wide-ranging gallery of characters and personalities, social hierarchies, backstabbing, double-crosses, a language so stylized and filled with slang that it sounds indecipherable to . Johnson finally made that connection too, and the greatness of “Brick” comes from these two settings coming together like interlocking jigsaw pieces.
Our gumshoe/dick/shamus/detective in this story is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who we first meet crouched in mourning outside of a sewer tunnel, with the dead body of a young blonde girl at his feet. Flash back a couple of days and we see Brendan, who is still a high school student, receiving a panicked phone call from Emily, his ex-girlfriend who had recently gone missing, saying that she was in trouble. She says she was involved with something involving “the pin” and a “bad brick.” Brendan, who likens himself to be an investigator, starts asking around the various cliques in his high school, a wide-ranging lions den of jocks, actresses and junkies, looking for any piece of information. The only ally in his quest is The Brain (Matt O’Leary), the nerd who basically lives in the library to look up information for Brendan. As Brendan tries to find out more about Emily, and the dangerous world she was sucked into that sealed her fate, he gets sucked into a labyrinth of mistrust and cons.
That labyrinth, consisting of every element that this high school world is built upon, is the strength of “Brick.” Rian Johnson obviously knows his crime noir, specifically Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but he also knows how to tie this dark, grown-up genre to a high school setting. The basic conceit behind that is very simple: teenagers think high school can be a dangerous, nefarious battleground. In “Brick,” high school actually is a dangerous, nefarious battleground. All it takes are some stakes the make this movie’s genre cocktail work.
The first thing that jumps out at you in “Brick” is the language. Noir dialogue is tough, fast, and bares little resemblance to how people actually talk. Cops are “bulls,” men are “yeggs,” women are “dames” so on and so forth. It is all delivered lightning fast; the dialogue flies so fast and the plot gets so complex that if you’re watching it for the first time you might actually need to turn on subtitles. Johnson isn’t going to hold your hand through the whole film. Noirs of the ’40s and ’50s trusted audiences to keep up with the story; “Brick” doesn’t spell anything out; which means when things do come together, there is a greater impact in watching the puzzle unfurl.
With an extremely limited budget, “Brick” is a marvel of DIY-filmmaking. Rian Johnson obviously knew that Hollywood cranked out hundreds of super low-budget noirs (a movement known as Poverty Row), so he realized that it didn’t take a ton of resources to create this world. “Brick” is evocatively shot, with the washed-out colors and looming shadows in the long hallways of the high school suggest the moral ambiguity and creeping menace that constantly surrounds these characters. A strange, deceptively simple score also adds to the low-key cool that makes up this film; but none of it feels like a put-on, since the eclectic cast of characters illuminate a devastating emotional core that keeps “Brick” from being a pretentious stunt.
And this is one hell of a cast of characters. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in his breakout role, inhabits Brendan like a second skin. It’s a captivating, intuitive performance that takes the best elements of the detectives of the past, specifically Humphrey Bogart’s Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon,” while making Brendan the perfect conduit for this somewhat surreal universe. He has a very interesting look to him; his glasses bring into focus eyes that seem to take in everything in sight, his clothes look like there a size to big, he gets the shit kicked out of him several times and just keeps coming. Despite his meager appearance, Gordon-Levitt puts so much conviction and gravitas into Brendan with such little apparent effort; that naturalism has fed into one of the most extraordinary and diverse streaks of acting excellence over the last half decade (please, please check out “The Lookout” and especially “50/50”). The kid from Angels in the Outfield is all grown up.
Brendan is in almost every frame of this movie, so he is our guide through this strange, alternate high-school universe. The typical high school cliques: the jocks, the theater geeks, the stoners, are all treated like self-contained gangs, similar to a typical criminal underworld. The mystery of Emily’s disappearance has Brendan interacting with all of them, trying to piece together the strange phone call that is his only clue. He reports to the vice principal (played by Richard Roundtree, that’s right, Shaft himself), who treats him like a police chief treats a renegade detective. He gets beaten down by cocky football players, seduced by duplicitous actresses, hunted by drug-dealing lackies of The Pin (Lukas Haas), and of course runs into a femme fatale: Laura (Nora Zehetner), a member of the “upper crust” of rich kids. Laura is a mystery. She’s a member of the group that may have played a part in Emily’s disappearance, but she seems interested in helping Brendan, whose only other ally is Brain (O’Leary is very solid as a deliberately one-dimensional character) and . The character of Laura, and Zehetner’s performance, reminded me of Mary Astor as Bridget O’Shaughnessy, also from “The Maltese Falcon.” Like Sam Spade with Bridget, Brendan knows that he can’t trust Laura, but he doesn’t have a choice; he also knows how much of a mistake this can be, and the finale finds him coming to terms with her actions, and his own feelings for her, in a way that leaves them both shattered.
That darkness that creeps in, as Brendan fights to find the truth behind the fate of Emily’s damaged, fragile soul (De Ravin, who was one of the weak points of “Lost,” is surprisingly effective with only a couple of scenes), and tries to avoid the schemes of The Pin (Haas is extremely creepy, channeling Peter Lorre) is why “Brick” is a triumph, not a stunt. High schoolers can be as jaded and cynical as the adults in this genre. Johnson kick-started his career in style, throwing the rules right out of the window. “Brick” isn’t about kids playing dress up: it’s about recognizing that this genre can stretch from back alleys to cafeterias, from rain-soaked streets to locker rooms. Outsiders dealing with life and death can come from anywhere.