BRICK, Rian Johnson’s feature length debut as writer and director, is brazenly old-fashioned in its storytelling, but first garnered my interest by exploring noir in the unfamiliar setting of a typical American high school.
Student and would-be gumshoe Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) regularly spouts the cynical, dense dialogue you might expect from a grizzled P.I. played by Humphrey Bogart. Brendan is a walking contradiction and fascinating to watch, at times seeming to willingly cast himself as an outsider, while later using his connections with peers to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend (Emilie de Ravin). Likewise, at first Gordon-Levitt appears weedy behind a mop of hair, glasses, and oversized shirts, but Brendan is surprisingly capable in a fight. Literally and figuratively, the kid is a mess. We glean that his confused emotional state is likely due to the relatively fresh breakup, yet Johnson subverts expectations by not using this hardship to parody the troubled pasts that haunted the hard-boiled antiheroes of Dashiell Hammett novels. Rather, Brendan’s pain is treated as legitimate and informs his desire to pursue the truth regardless of the consequences, earnestly channelling touchstones like Sam Spade. Further uses of noir conventions, from the femme fatale to the double-cross, build on this parallel and present an astute observation; that is, teenagers treat every situation with a healthy dose of melodrama.
Brendan’s complex characterisation exemplifies BRICK’s obsession with style and tone; even if you haven’t necessarily followed the plot in every scene, the attention to detail in Johnson’s evocations of old-school noir makes it easy to understand his intentions. The film is brimming with curiosity, from its quirky score, to bare locations that beg viewers to speculatively fill in details. Indeed, the opening minutes alone feel littered with places and names that you should recognise, and propel a desire to uncover secrets and context. As a result, it can perhaps be expected that the specific plot developments are less of a priority, given that their familiarity allows so much exploration of how to convey genre. Anyone who prefers stories with constant and fresh surprises might struggle at first, but Johnson’s script ultimately succeeds at providing just enough information while leaving room for interpretation.
BRICK is above all a film about how it feels to solve a mystery, and its ambitions are impressively well realised despite its miniscule budget. It’s easy to see how the premise could’ve led to a parody, or twist on a high school movie, but thankfully the film resists employing what would arguably be easier methods of forming a distinct identity. By instead delivering an affectionate homage to noir films twice his age, Johnson demonstrates that familiar ideas can be given a renewed purpose and impact with a few simple changes to their presentation. As an exercise in style and genre, and an important breakthrough in the career of a brilliant 21 st century filmmaker, it’s undeniably worth revisiting.