Next to United 93, Brick is the best thing I’ve seen so far this year.
This is the movie Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler would have written were they modern high-schoolers. Brick may find its time and place in modernity but its soul is straight out of The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep. Brick is what it would have looked like if Bogart went to high school--an adolescent Chinatown with shades of Kurosawa, peppered with the rapid-fire, hard-boiled, cryptic speech of A Clockwork Orange and wrapped in the very deceptive skin of a teen drama. These are not soap opera teens obsessed over who’s going out with whom. Here football studs, prom queens and social misfits are unapologetic criminals, enmeshed in a seedy high school netherworld that is as real an anything their parent’s encounter--perhaps more so.
Joseph Goedn-Levitt (Third Rock from the Sun) is Brendan--Sam Spade, Phillip Marlow, and Jake Gittes all wrapped into one. But he is more than just the pugnacious gumshoe of so many ’40 and ’50 film noirs. He is also a 16-year-old boy, struggling through English class, isolated through social alienation, and confused and hurt by unrequited love. Flashbacks reveal a young and innocent boy while realtime shows him to be cold and hardened man-child. Time has not done this. Pain has.
One day Brendan gets an frightened and cryptic phone call from his estranged ex-girlfriend. The next day he finds her dead. He doesn’t go to the cops. He can’t trust them. This is a mystery he must unravel for himself. He owes it to his love to find out who killed her, even if the answers come accompanied by brass-knuckles. The closer Brendan gets to the truth, the harder the punches land. He will take the beating and keep getting up because it is the only way to get to the truth.
Poking his nose where it doesn’t belong, Brendan encounters all of the genre archetypes to which Brick owes so much homage, including the Kingpin, a drug dealer who runs his business from the suburban, wood-paneled basement of his parent’s home and has to borrow the family car to execute his plans; his goons, hired muscle unimpeded by brains; and, of course, the classic femmes fatales--in this movie, no dame can be trusted. Everyone in Brick plays it straight. To them, their words and actions don’t seem in the slightest bit funny or weird. As Roger Ebert said, “The actors enter into the spirit; we never catch them winking.”
If this sounds ridiculous, it doesn’t play like it. First time director Rian Johnson’s endlessly clever and visually arresting film completely merges adolescent angst and detective-fiction into something that is odd, yes, but also audacious and engaging. It both takes itself very seriously and allows moments of dark comedic delight. The best such moment takes place in the Kingpin’s house, where warring gangs face each on the brink of the maelstrom and hovering in between them, the Pin’s cheerful and oblivious mother serves orange juice and cookies.
Brick is a black-comic ballet through the peculiar terrors of suburban adolescence exacerbated and magnified by a criminal underworld that is anything but carefree and youthful. It looks like the low-budget, $500,000, home-made, grainy, sound-challenged film that it is. Who cares? That is half its charm. And its triumph. That it overcame these decidedly independent hurdles to please both novice viewer and hard-boiled detective-fiction fan alike is testament to its dark-horse charm. This is the sort of movie you can't help but smile at, dazzled by its cheeky ingenuity.