catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 20 :: 2006.11.03 — 2006.11.17


Classic noir goes to high school

The result of a bad acid trip, good old-fashioned creativity, or just sheer audacity, Rian Johnson’s Brick heralds the birth of a whole new genre—high school noir. The method to Johnson’s madness is a curious one; rather than stitch genres together into a big cinematic gumbo, a la Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, he takes all the tropes and trappings of an all-American detective story, uproots the whole aesthetic, and transplants it into the world of teen melodrama. It’s a bold little movie that could easily have come off as parody or spoof, but Johnson keeps up his poker face, playing the whole thing with gravitas. The resulting film is a triumph not only of creativity, but also of sheer, balls-out audacity.

The whole film has a creepy, druggy haze to it, and, appropriately, drugs play a central role in the story. The movie opens with our young, suburban Humphrey Bogart, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), crouching in a sewer, surveying the corpse of some mysterious dame. Noir fans know that mysterious dames tend to spell trouble, and, sure enough, we’re snapped back in time to two days prior to her death, where we learn that the girl, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), is Brendan’s ex-girlfriend, and she’s got a serious problem. What that problem is we don’t quite know, but it seems that it involves some kind of a brick, and Brendan/Bogey is the only one who can help her.

Thus, our tall-dark-and-handsome hero sets out to get to the bottom of Emily’s troubles. Things quickly get complicated, as Brendan gets tangled up in the drug scene, and his quest for the truth makes him a pawn in the sexual games of two wily women, Laura (Nora Zehetner) and Kara (Meagan Good); the human punching bag of scrappy ruffian named Tugger (Noah Fleiss); and the unlikely ally of the creepy drug dealer known as The Pin (Lukas Haas, too eerie for words).

Of course, Brick is one of those movies in which the plot itself serves mainly as a vehicle for the director’s stylistic and creative whims. The downside of that is that there’s nothing especially meaningful about the story itself. The upside is that Johnson has plenty of space to demonstrate his obvious love for the genre he’s working with, and to push his imagination into places so unexpected it’d be shocking even to M. Night Shyamalan.

The whole movie plays homage to its film noir roots, but often in ways that you wouldn’t quite expect; other scenes are so far off the beaten path that it’s hard to tell if they even have any roots. In one of the film’s most exhilarating scenes, Brendan plays matador with a big black sedan, driven by silent thug. And then there’s his first meeting with The Pin, whose bird fetish and stark office make him one of the most bizarre and frightening characters you’ll see on the big screen all year—even if he does still live with his mom. There’s even an obligatory scene on the docks, and throughout the film Brendan conducts all his business from a pay phone; it’s as if Johnson made him the one teenager in the universe without a cell phone just for the sake of preserving some of the dogged spirit of classic noir.

And then there’s the dialogue. Johnson, who also wrote the film, has laid claim to the throne formerly held by David Mamet, essentially creating his own language out of dense slang and wordplay. It’s disarming, and it works; it goes a long way toward making Brick a work of bold, visionary creativity, not a mere genre exercise. Also extraordinary is the soundtrack, a strange and surprising mix of jazz, rock, and found sound that alternates between darkness and playfulness, sometimes harkening back to hard-boiled detective yarns of old but mostly giving the film a feel entirely its own.

Brick’s strange mix of atmosphere and narrative, humor and gravitas, homage and invention, makes it a thriller like no other. At first, the effect is disarming; then, astonishing; finally, gripping, not to mention rather charming. Some moviegoers are sure to find it rather pretentious; others, simply ridiculous. That’s not necessarily wrong, but the film wears its absurdity like a badge, reveling in its own glorious creativity, and ensuring that, if there’s any justice, Johnson will be one of cinema’s most stylish and subversive visionaries for years to come.

This review originally appeared on the site for Reveal: Reflections on Art and Faith.  Visit the site for more film and music reviews.

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