BRICK (Rian Johnson, 2005)
Desktop audio tools have allowed music fans to make something fresh by combining seemingly incongruous songs. Mashing-up The Strokes and Christina Aguilera sounds like a potential disaster, but the end result is surprisingly catchy. Likewise, BRICK, a cinematic mash-up of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett detective stories with a contemporary high school drama, seems like a better idea as a stylistic stunt, but writer-director Rian Johnson’s film works quite well. This isn’t an exercise in playing dress-up. The characters inhabit a place where disappointment and pain lurk around every corner, something all too familiar to teenagers.
Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives a note and a phone call from his distraught ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She’s in a jam but can’t bring herself to disclose the details of her situation to him. Two days later she turns up face down in a culvert. Still smarting from their break-up two months prior, Brendan sets out to get to the bottom of Emily’s death and expose the unsavory characters with whom she had been spending her time.
Brendan’s investigation leads him to the local drug dealer The Pin (Lukas Haas), a cane-wielding 26 year-old; Tugger (Noah Fleiss), the short-fused muscle who stomps around like an ape; and Laura (Nora Zehetner), a kimono-clad femme fatale first glimpsed singing and tickling the ivories at a private party.
BRICK’S language is anachronistic and its tone irony-free as the teenagers strike their world-weary postures. Think of it as the flip side of VERONICA MARS, which uses hip patter and an ironic tone in following the adventures of Kristen Bell’s teenage gumshoe. Neither approach is more correct than the other—BRICK and VERONICA MARS do what they do well—but Johnson’s film is refreshing in its lack of winking. BRICK has a sharp sense of humor, but it’s filtered through the hard-boiled lingo and the occasional dissonance of noir and suburbia rather than postmodernism.
It takes time to develop an ear for the jargon-laced dialogue, but Johnson doles out enough clues, often through the all-seeing The Brain (Matt O’Leary), to keep viewers from getting lost in the argot. This specialized language is a good fit for teens, who create slang some adults find nearly impenetrable. It also gives BRICK verbal texture that differentiates it from just about every other film made today.
Elevated emotions are a hallmark of adolescence, so the film handles romantic splits and hallway betrayals like the matters of life and death that kids feel they are. Except for an assistant vice-principal (SHAFT’S Richard Roundtree) and an oblivious, doting mother, adults are absent from BRICK’S world. Their non-presence is crucial to sustaining youthful misperception that they are alone in their experience of intense feelings.
Johnson’s visual acuity turns BRICK’S southern California suburb into a gray sky wasteland of concrete and asphalt. The landscape speaks of loneliness. Large, foreboding spaces swallow up the few people inhabiting them. The rare bright blue sky is visible before Brendan falls from innocence, before Emily ends their relationship. It’s also in this flashback that his forehead is able to be seen. Once Emily has left his life, the emotional turmoil is manifested in the tousled bangs drooping just above his glasses.
It’s worth noting BRICK’S soundtrack and sound design. Composer Nathan Johnson, the director’s cousin, includes a few standard noir cues but favors rusty lounge music not far removed from Tom Waits. The spare music extends to the frequently quiet natural sound, all the better for bringing to the fore essential aural information. A schoolyard chase scene gains its urgency from two distinct sets of clopping feet. One character removes his shoes to elude the pursuer and trips him, sending him headfirst into a pole that rings like a bell from the impact.
With his performances in MYSTERIOUS SKIN and BRICK, Gordon-Levitt has grown into an actor worth following. I had tarred him for being on the sitcom 3RD ROCK FROM THE SUN, a show I didn’t care for at all, but his shift from the TV comedy series to more serious roles proves that he is a versatile and serious performer. As Brendan, Gordon-Levitt is convincing as the good kid who has been wounded and let the trauma darken his perspective and toughen his skin. Now he hits hard and hits fast and isn’t afraid to be on the receiving end any longer.
Similar to Gordon-Levitt’s transformation away from sitcom kid, Haas shakes up his screen persona. Typically not one to cut an imposing figure, he brings a frightening quality to The Pin. As the mysterious Laura, Zehetner is seductive and forthcoming, assuming that one of those qualities doesn’t cancel out the other. Her wide eyes make her look innocent and in need of protection, but if the genre’s demands are any indication, that appearance is anything but true.
Johnson’s sources of inspiration for BRICK put forth tough dicks and dames in a cold, uncaring universe. Glum teens are a clever and natural evolution for the genre.