Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)
It's not a new thing: infusing time-tested film noir principles and dogma in contemporary setting. The results often vary. David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001) was a hallucinatory nightmare that leaves its audience dumbfounded but with a satisfied grin of about to uncover a complex puzzle, but not quite. The Coen Brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) is less successful, playing its ridiculous plot like a ridiculous joke: it was worth a huge laugh or two at the end. Curtis Hanson's L. A. Confidential (1997) and Brian de Palma's Femme Fatale (2002) are straight noirs, possibly great examples of the genre. It's all good because the genre is rich. Working within the genre is a grand scheme for filmmakers to practice their skills while being kept within the boundaries the genre has established. It is similar to a poet writing a sonnet or haiku: one has to stay within the limitations of form, verses, and stanzas. For a newbie director to start his career with a film noir, he needs resolve and discipline to keep his creativity within the realm of the genre.
Rian Johnson's debut feature Brick won the jury prize at Sundance and became the favorite of most of the festival patrons who saw it. While set in a California high school, Brick is not simply noirish, it is, like L. A. Confidential and Femma Fatale, straight-out noirs. It is clever, as these educational facilities, like the high school where Brick is set, have similar social structures as the cityscapes of the noirs of old. There were always groups, and from these diverse groups, problems, and crimes, and when there's crime, there will always be someone to solve the crime. The clever detective in Brick is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the typical nerd who harbors some sort of hatred against everyone. When he receives a note from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) to wait for her call from a telephone booth in the corner of two streets, he follows and discovers that his ex is in deep trouble. His curiosity takes over, and he decides to investigate.
The film starts with Emily dead outside a waterway tunnel, and Brendan staring deeply at the corpse. We later learn that Emily dies much later, after we are introduced to this noir's host of characters: Laura (Nora Zehetner), the high-class femme fatale, The Pin (Lukas Haas), the godfather-like end of all drug deals, Tugger (Noah Fleiss), The Pin's right-hand thug, The Brain (Matt O'Leary), Brendan's informant, Dode (Noah Segin), hopeless addict and Emily's last boyfriend, and Kara (Meagan Good), the school's resident stage diva.
The core of this noir is the flagrant drug trade within the high school campus. It's driving force is the sudden death of Emily. Twists, revelations, moments of extreme silliness, and points of curiosity dot the story. The dialogue is obviously lifted from the language profusely used in classic noir. The screenplay turns the film into a surreal dream, with everything so neatly conceptualized and each piece of the puzzle moving to complete the whole, although that whole isn't clearly in line with definitions of reality.
Brick is a wonderful debut film for Johnson, but its problem lies in the fact that it appears too clever, too reliant on exposition. The mood takes away much from the social deliberation, the screenplay steals away its Lynchian flavors. While I had so much fun deciphering the codes, clues and hints that when everything's put into place, the pay-off to this creatively conceived yet overlong and belated film noir seems unjustified. After watching the film twice, it feels more like a grandiose spin-off of a Hardy Boys book, with Brendan an obvious reject of the famous group of cool teen detectives.