The movie Brick was quite a revelation for me. If you had told me before I saw it that a Maltese Falcon type of film could be translated to a high school setting I would probably not have taken it seriously. Luckily I knew nothing about the film when I rented it, other than it was a whodunit. I immediately recognized the speech patterns of the characters as being right out of film noir. At first it was a little strange to be seeing teenagers talk this way, but after a few minutes I got into it. As the film went along and more and more noir conventions appeared, translated to being relevant to the setting, I enjoyed myself more and more. This is definitely a movie that anyone who likes film noir should see.
Brick stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt (10 Things I Hate About You, Inception) as Brendan, a loner (but not a loser) who understands the various cliques; he just doesn’t want to be a part of them. The film opens with him standing over the dead body of his estranged girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin from
and Lost) just outside a water tunnel. What has happened here? We then see Brendan flashing back to two days earlier when Emily had slipped him a note to be at a phone booth. She calls him there and tries to tell him something, but a car pulls up and she gets scared. She uses several terms that Brendan doesn’t understand, including “brick” and “the pin”. Roswell
With the help of a former girlfriend (Meagan Good) Brendan eventually pieces together an invitation to a party that Emily had. Laura (Nora Zehetner from Everwood) is the one hosting it. Brendan talks to her. She tells him Emily has been hanging out behind a café with a guy named Dode (Noah Segan). Brendan follows him and finds Emily. She tells him that he has to forget about her for his own sake. While they are hugging Brendan takes her notebook and finds a piece of paper with a symbol on it.
He goes to The Brain (Matt O’Leary) to help him figure out the terms Emily used, as well as the meaning of the symbol on the paper. Among the terms The Brain only recognizes “The Pin”, which is the name of the big drug dealer in town. He also knows that the symbol is indicating a meeting place, but not where that place is. Brendan figures out that the symbol indicates the tunnel, and the movie comes back to where it started with him finding Emily’s dead body.
He tries to get The Pin’s attention by picking a fight with one of the guys in school connected to him. He also has a conversation with the Vice-Principal (Richard freaking Roundtree – Shaft himself – in a great cameo) where Brendan is told that he will be left alone to continue to figure out what is going on (no one knows Emily is dead yet, except Brendan and whoever killed her; people only know she is probably in trouble). In return, Brendan has to keep the Vice-Principal informed of what he finds out. If he gets in trouble, though, he’s on his own.
Brendan runs into Tugger (Noah Fleiss), or rather Tugger’s fist. After putting up a fight, Tugger takes him to meet The Pin (Lukas Haas from Witness and Inception). Tugger works for him as his muscle. In a great moment, we finally meet this drug kingpin that we have been hearing so much about…and he turns out to be a guy in his mid-twenties who still lives with his mom. It’s not quite a Harry Lime moment from The Third Man. In fact, it pretty much turns that scene on its head. The fact that his mom still serves him milk and cookies when he has “friends” over (maybe my favorite scene in the movie) doesn’t mean he isn’t dangerous, though.
Brendan convinces The Pin that he wants to work for him. The Pin doesn’t trust him, but is willing to give him a chance. Brendan uses every opportunity to sow distrust between The Pin and Tugger. He keeps going back to The Brain for help, and he also keeps running into Laura, who tries to help, even though Brendan doesn’t trust her.
By the time the movie ends we do find out the answers to everything, including who killed Emily, why she was killed, and who was behind it all.
I mentioned above that several conventions of noir were translated into things relevant to this setting. The plot description has already shown you most of the archetypes: the tough investigator, the woman from his past who is in trouble, the criminal, his muscle, the femme fatale, etc. There’s also a fun nod to The Maltese Falcon when Brendan instructs a character to ring the doorbell in the same pattern as the one Bogart’s Sam Spade character uses for a car horn in that film.
In noir films the investigator often meets people in bars. Where he drinks and who he drinks with told viewers a lot of what they needed to know about the man. What’s the equivalent in high school? It’s where you eat lunch, and who you eat it with. Several times during the film Brendan tells people who he wants to talk to, “you know where I eat lunch” as a way to let them know how to get in touch with him.
While The Pin may only be in his twenties, that is still older than all of the high schoolers, and would seem quite mature to them, just like the older criminal masterminds in noir films would appear to the investigators.
The femme fatale both smokes and is a seductress, which is right out of too many noir films to mention. When this film won the Special Jury Prize at Sundance there was a scene showing some brief nudity. Writer/director Rian Johnson cut it for general release, perhaps in the hope of getting a PG-13 rating. The MPAA gave the film an R anyway because of drugs being part of the story. This prevented most teens from going to see the movie when it was released. Perhaps it wouldn’t have mattered because there are a ton of comments on IMDB from confused teens not understanding why the characters were talking so strangely.
Johnson spent several years trying to get this film made. I’ve heard that he ended up editing it on his home computer and that his cousin scored it via internet chat sessions between the two of them.
Despite the low budget approach I never got the feeling that it was low budget. I especially remember how good the sound was during a foot chase scene in the film. Every time a shoe hit the concrete it was very distinct.
There’s also a great shot at the end of the film (no spoilers). Brendan talks to The Brain several times during the film. The final scene between the two shows Brendan’s face in the left of the picture. The Brain then steps into view a ways behind him. The effect is to make The Brain literally appear to be stepping out of Brendan’s head. This shot has even led to speculation that The Brain wasn’t real; that he was just Brendan’s image of how he worked through all the clues in his own mind. For the record, I believe The Brain to be real because he interacts with other characters during the film, although those interactions are off screen.
Even if you think you wouldn’t like a movie about a bunch of teenagers, you should still really give this film a try. If you like film noir at all, you definitely should see this movie, both for the story itself, and to see how they translated noir conventions to a high school setting. I highly recommend this film.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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What I loved about the film was how it played to the world of high school without delving into the traditional world of cliques and such.ReplyDelete
The big scene for me is when Brendan fights the top jock and kicks his ass. For me, it was a huge personal moment as I was among a group of loners who didn't fit in with any kind of clique in high school. We hated the popular kids and it felt so good to see the popular jock get his ass kicked in front of the school.
I wished I had done that to everyone I hated in high school.
Yes, there is the element of wish fulfillment in some of the movie, isn't there? I agree that having Brendan be able to span all the various kinds of high schoolers because he wasn't in a particular clique was a good choice.Delete
Thanks Chip Lary, this is one I haven't got around to seeing, but it totally sounds like something I would enjoy. Putting it on my list of films to track down.ReplyDelete
Thanks. I think you'll like it. If you happen to think of it, once you've had a chance to see Brick, please come back and let me know what you thought - good or bad.Delete
Totally awesome flick that showed me I could whatever I wanted to in high school. Well, not really, but it still was cool to see high school kids act as if they were all adults, in one big film noir. Thankfully, it worked and I can easily rank this among one of my favorites from JGL. Good review Chip.ReplyDelete
I used to be annoyed when I was a teen and all I saw in movies and TV shows were teens acting like little kids. It was obviously an adult's view of them. It hasn't really gotten better over the years. I agree that this movie is refreshing in that it shows teens as serious people.Delete
Brick is an AMAZING movie - combining that that hard-boiled noir style with high school. Great review!ReplyDelete
Thanks. I'm glad you liked it.Delete
Hmmmm... I have to say I'm intrigued by this one, as a fan of film noir. Not sure how this slipped past my radar. I'm sure it was a tough sell for the distributors, since they couldn't market it as another run-of-the-mill teen flick.ReplyDelete
I can't remember how I happened to run across this film, but I know I didn't see it until it was available to rent on DVD.Delete
Of the three films I just reviewed, if you had to pick just one to watch, this would definitely be the one to see. If you like film noir, then I think you'll like this film, regardless of the fact that it's teenage characters in it.
I love film noir so I will definetly see this one as soon as possible. Great review!ReplyDelete
Thanks. If you get a chance, please come back and let me know what you thought of the film.Delete