Brick was Rian Johnson’s directorial debut, and a high school noir with surreally hardboiled dialogue makes a hell of a calling card. It would be almost comically easy for the film to lie lifeless on the screen, and not all of Johnson’s gambles pay off completely: the frequently washed-out palette begs for a lusher black-and-white reshoot, and while Joseph Gordon-Levitt has no problem conveying weary cynicism, some of his costars only succeed in looking sleepy. It’s a strange, ambitious little film, one clearly made by a formalist with a deep love for all things genre.
The greatness of the film is partly its uncanniness and partly its ruthlessness. There’s just a strange beauty to seeing Brendan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, go head-to-head with an assistant principal (Richard Roundtree) and justify having ratted out a classmate: “I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.” And while Brick mostly goes without winking at its audience, Johnson has an unerring sense of when his form will let him be playful. The deadly-serious world of teenagers is diminished only by adults—into the film’s vortex of gloom and high-stakes comes the Pin’s mother, a cheerful suburban woman who pours country-style apple juice for her son’s “friends” whenever they take a break from the beatings and drug deals going on in the basement. It’s only in her scenes that you get the idea that the real world is just off-screen. (Her son, one of those twenty-something drug-dealers perpetually hanging out with high school students, is on the verge—despite his frock coat—of tipping into that mundane adulthood: at one point, he casually chats up Brendan on the virtues of Tolkien.) Otherwise—correctly—Johnson sells his vision with a completely straight face.
And that allows him to find moments of dark, brutal truth—pure noir, but beyond parody. The film’s denouement, with Brendan confronting nascent femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) on a deserted football field, is a polished, sharply-cut little gem of a scene. Confronted with all of Brendan’s deductions and all of his cynicism, and with tear-tracks still on her face, Laura gathers herself. He hasn’t done too badly, she says. “Nine out of ten.”
And then she tells him what he’s missed.
As someone else in the film says, “Make sure you want to know what you want to know.”
(Brick is available on Netflix. As a Solute bonus, Brian White—a.k.a. The Shield’s Tavon Garris—has a small role as dolt football player Brad Bramish, the recipient of one of the movie’s best burns.)