Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye
Lukas Haas as The Pin
Nora Zehetner as Laura Dannon
Noah Segan as Dode
Noah Fleiss as Tugger
Emilie de Ravin as Emily Kostach
Meagan Good as Kara
Lucas Babin as Big Stoner
Jonathan Cauff as Biff
McJoel Hamilton as The Pin’s Driver
Cody Lightning as Lug
Matt O’Leary as The Brain
Richard Roundtree as Assistant VP Gary Trueman
Brian J. White as Brad
Tracy Wilcoxen as Straggler
Directed by Rian Johnson
“Brick” may be one of the most ambitious and inventive film debuts of the year. Its clever mash-up of genres and jargon goes so far beyond anything we’ve seen before, that it’s often hard to keep up with its brilliance.
Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a rebellious loner, has just learned that his ex-girlfriend Emily has been hanging with the wrong crowd. When she suddenly turns up dead, Brendan is sent headlong into the world of crime and drugs surrounding a mysterious druglord called “The Pin” (Lukas Haas). Oh, yeah. And this all takes place in high school.
This review needs to be quantified with an opening statement addressing how much I love modern film noir, particularly the inventive take the Coen Brothers’ displayed in “Miller’s Crossing.” It’s pretty obvious that first-time filmmaker Rian Johnson was influenced by that movie, as much as he was inspired by the Coens’ own inspiration, Dashiel Hammett, but his debut puts a new spin on noir stereotypes, merging them into a high school drama involving dead teens and drugs.
It’s an interesting idea that certainly keeps you on your toes, as you watch Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan interact with various characters from his able assistant, The Brain, to the evil druglord, “The Pin,” getting deeper and deeper into a mystery involving a “brick” of cocaine, that may have proven to be the undoing of his ex-girlfriend. Along the way, he gets help from a number of wily femme fatales, while avoiding the fists of the high school jock and the rage of the Pin’s testy right hand thug, Tug.
Unlike first films where style overpowers the lack of substance, “Brick” deftly mixes both into an amalgam of two very different worlds that, once you adjust to the film’s very different feel, seem almost like they were meant to be merged together. This is mostly due to Johnson’s clever dialogue, which has high school kids talking like they’re in an old detective movie, while using modern teen slang and maintaining the high school hierarchies we’ve seen countless times before.
Even once you’ve adjusted to the rather odd jargon and speech patterns, it does get somewhat tiring, but it’s much easier to appreciate once you’ve figured out what Johnson is doing, and its even more enjoyable when it breaks out of its routine. When the hero goes before the assistant vice principal, played by no less than Richard “Shaft” Roundtree, after getting into a fight, he claims his assailant asked for his lunch money first, and you can’t help but smile when the real world enters the picture in the form of the Pin’s mother, who pleasantly pours orange juice for his “school friends” unaware of the criminal deeds taking place just downstairs. It still takes a bit of concentration to keep from being completely confused by its countless characters and subplots, even once they eventually get tied together.
More importantly, it’s an incredibly stylized film that is able to avoid the customary shadows associated with classic film noir in favor of more familiar daytime settings with a rare exception being a scene where Brendan explores a dark basement using the reflections from a mirror like a flashlight. On the other hand, the old lamppost used for romantic rendezvous in old crime films is replaced with the more customary high school football field.
Of course, the influence of “Miller’s Crossing” is sometimes a bit too blatant with some ideas and shots almost verbatim from the crime drama. There’s also a less overt David Lynch influence in Johnson’s disregard for typical storytelling structures on its way to the film’s climax. The movie’s few action scenes are exaggerated to the point of being cartoonish, almost like a real world “Sin City,” and the ambient score by Nathan Johnson mixes old and new to drive home the point that we’re experiencing something that exists outside of time and genre.
For his second film in a row, former “3rd Rock From the Sun” star Joseph Gordon-Levitt gets put through the grinder, as Brendan winds up in a number of fistfights where he’s clearly outmatched. It gives Levitt yet another chance to prove his worth as a dramatic actor by really making you root for this somber introverted character.
The women bring the most to his supporting cast with Meagan Good far exceeding her namesake as Kara, the Drama Club femme fatale who has freshmen wrapped around her finger, and Nora Zehetner is equally enjoyable as her opposite. Former child star Lukas Haas is great as the film’s baddie, and you just can’t get enough of Matt O’Leary’s nerdy accomplice, The Brain. On the other hand, the two Noahs, Fleiss and Segan, who create the most problems for Brendan, aren’t quite up to the task of keeping from going overboard with their characters.
The Bottom Line:
Rian Johnson’s first film shows a lot of promise and creativity. Although it sometimes gets confusing, once you’ve settled into his world, it’s quite an accomplished film, especially considering its presumably infinitesimal budget. Fans of crime noir films or teen dramas may be able to appreciate the challenging mix of genres, once they adjust to the intricate plot and dialogue. Either way, it’s the type of movie worth savoring with repeat viewings, because it’s almost impossible to appreciate the creativity at work in just one viewing.