It’s ironic that, at the Sundance film festival this year, a film that was based on reappropriating film noir archetypes into a high school situation was awarded for “Originality of Vision”.
Brick is exactly like a stereotypical hardboiled detective story, except the detective is a student played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. This does not make it bad by any stretch of the imagination, because the perfect sort of film noir in my imagination is exactly as atmospheric as Brick.
Brick opens with Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at a stormwater drain, having just discovered the deceased body of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). The film cuts to two days prior, detailing the events just prior to Emily’s death, and the subsequent efforts of Brendan to figure out not just who killed Emily, but why.
I think that that summary is better than the one promoted by the Australian cinema industry:
Brendan Frye is a high school student – a loner whose piercing intelligence spares no one. He prefers to stay an outsider, but when his troubled ex-girlfriend suddenly vanishes, he becomes consumed with finding her in this new noir mystery that takes its cues from the novels of Dashiell Hammett.
While the second part of that summary sounds okay, the first part makes the movie seem so self-important that I wouldn’t want to see it. It makes the movie sound more elitist than it really is, but I suppose it would make part of the film’s demographic feel good about themselves.
What is the film’s demographic? Who would want to go and see these sorts of adventures? Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s career has been blessed with two defining roles: in 2005 he starred as a damaged teenager in Mysterious Skin, one of the best and most horrible films I’ve ever seen. He’s slightly more palatable for a younger audience here, and this has the potential to become a “cult classic” amongst the student set, but teenagers at large are not going to want to flock to this movie, as one might glean from this account of teenaged vapidity. It’s no Napoleon Dynamite, that’s for sure. As wanky as it is to say this (but never to the extent of the party line supplied by the summary above), it’s made for people like me. It could have mainstream appeal – something Mysterious Skin will never achieve – but it’s not quite “safe” enough.
The first thing that everyone who has said anything about this movie is that director Rian Johnson has chosen not to date his movie by using modern teenaged slang, but rather by “creating his own unique language”. What that actually means is “creating linguistic stylings from the best of the twenties, thirties and forties”. Several of the cinemas that are showing it have, amongst their promo materials, a glossary of Brick terms. Some of them are obscure and difficult to understand, others are obvious and given away by synonyms used in the same dialogue, such as “No bulls. I don’t want any cops.”
This is apparently striking, but it becomes second nature if you know what’s going on. The technique has the potential to become extremely annoying, but only one does: “who is she eating with?” You can get thoroughly sick of hearing this in the early parts of the film, largely because Brendan has to ask this question of pretty much everyone he meets. When he stops meeting people, this stops being a problem. The rest of the self conscious dialogue is kept to a minimum, with only one such instance sticking out in my mind, the point rendered moot because it was hilarious.
The Pin: You read Tolkien?
The Pin: You know, the Hobbit books?
The Pin: His descriptions of things are really good. He makes you wanna be there.
This scene takes place on a beach, and why? You get the feeling that The Pin (Lukas Haas) doesn’t get out of his basement much, and this scene really adds to the overall feel of the character.
Beyond first impressions, one can discover a story about a bitter but determined young man desperate to find out the truth while hiding from much of it. The situation that makes the high school analogous to the real world of crime is effective chiefly because no classes take place. It’s a high school where no learning takes place, and no parts of the school are used except for the lockers, the car park and the Assistant Vice Principal’s office. The Assistant Vice Principal, in a brief appearance from Richard Roundtree, both sells the high school context and makes it hilarious. He’s the Assistant Vice Principal, and in the school his word is law! He has higher authorities, of course – the police – but apparently not the Principal or Vice Principal. That he’s the AVP makes it all the funnier.
Yet Brick is not a movie designed to be hilarious. Beyond the pith expected of a traditional hardboiled detective, the theme of Brick is sadness and tragedy. Nathan Johnson’s score is glorious, reminiscent of Vangelis’ work on Blade Runner. Characters have their own themes, the most notable being that which plays every time Laura (Nora Zehetner), the film’s femme fatale, comes on screen. The cinematography is sometimes confronting and captures the feelings of Brendan through repeated compositions and a clock motif.
The film has been criticised by some for featuring an improbably amount of damage being dealt to Brendan, but this effectively creates the impression of a man who is absolutely determined to solve the case that plagues him, that should no longer involve him, that he cannot escape. If every character in every movie was knocked out of action for good every time he got beaten unconscious, then a hell of a lot of cinematic crimes would never get solved. Sometimes metaphor overrides the need for reality in a film; we call it “suspension of disbelief”. Not a lot of suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy Brick, because the story is involving enough as it is. It’s a movie that works without thinking of it as a movie, but that’s not the way I operate. My piercing intelligence spares no one.
Brick doesn’t really feature an originality of vision; it features an appropriation of vision. While its nearest analogue in my filmic dictionary is Blade Runner, it’s likely to be many other films to many other people. It’s the sort of movie that you can talk about over dinner afterwards, coming to understand the characters’ motives and generally revelling in the quality of its composition. Rian Johnson’s next work is set to be more grandiose, and that’s exactly the way it should be: always pursuing new cinematic ambitions.