by RISHI AGRAWAL
This high school drama opens with Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) standing over the dead body of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Through flashbacks, we learn that these are fairly typical teenagers, concerned with their social lives, navigating high school cliques and their eating companions at lunch. Though their concerns and problems might not be too unusual, writer-director Rian Johnson has turned this film in something dark and moody. These teenagers spout highly stylized dialogue and possess wisdom that betrays their youth. The cinematography is shadowy and sparse, yet sculpted and intentional. Adults are almost nowhere to be found in this film. One of the few authority figures we find is The Pin (Lukas Haas), a local crime boss who is considered “old” at 26. <
Brendan is convinced that he needs to solve Emily’s murder, and keep the news quiet from the police. And he doesn’t just want to know who performed the deed, but who put Emily in the position to be killed in the first place. Brendan enlists the help of his friend The Brain (Matt O’Leary) to help him on the case, as Brendan doesn’t get straightforward information, but cryptic clues: phrases such as “brick” and “coffee and pie,” a mysterious red party invitation, and instructions to be at a street corner at a particular time to wait for a payphone to ring. Along the way, Brendan travels the various social circles of high school and meets characters such as Laura (Nora Zehetner), a wealthy socialite who claims she is trying to help; Tugger (Noah Fleiss), a bruiser who uses his fists first and asks questions later; Dode (Noah Segan), a slacker who claims to be Emily’s most recent boyfriend; Kara (Meagan Good), a noted thespian who has boys wrapped around her finger; and Brad (Brian White), a jock who has an irrational dislike of Brendan. At the center of it all seems to be the crime boss The Pin, who few people have even met.
What it comes down to is that Brick is a delicately written crime drama, mysterious and atmospheric. We have complex characters, all with hidden secrets and ulterior motives. All of this leads to a rich and textured film in its own right. But Rian Johnson is not satisfied with just writing a great crime drama – he pushes the film to the next level by setting the story in a high school. Johnson borrows heavily from the film noir genre where the characters are so stylized that you cannot accept them as real, but they aren’t one-dimensional and flat either. Johnson has created characters that have transcended reality and that could only exist in film.
Take Brendan, for example, brought to life by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, probably best known from the TV show 3rd Rock from the Sun. With his mop of hair, glasses and understated dress, he doesn’t look like much. But he excels at stealth and street fighting. He is insightful and resourceful; we never question that he has a plan and that he knows what he’s doing. He can read people, but it doesn’t stop him from being impetuous and testing the limits of others. He has ice water in his veins and remains cool under all circumstances, never showing any fear or vulnerability. Throw in a sprinkle of emotion at the right moments, and we have a portrait that, in no way, resembles a real person. Yet, we still have this complicated, interesting character who gives life to this film.
By having the story set in a high school, we have an added layer of humor in the film, which is missing in many of this film’s influences. Everything in the film seems so unnatural that there is no way that the ridiculousness could not be intentional. Sure, during the entire film we realize that these teenagers are precocious and that they should not be acting like this, but everything is done with such sincerity that it works. And when it doesn’t work, we know that we are laughing with the film rather than at it. In the back of our minds, we wonder where the teachers and parents are in this drama, but they are so far outside the scope of the film that it doesn’t matter.
Though this is a difficult film to discuss and an even more difficult film to explain, I think the reason I like this film so much is that it embraces its own artificial nature. All films are artificial, to some degree. A lot of filmmakers, however, try to make the viewer forget about the artifice and believe that there is something real. Johnson, on the other hand, realizes that the viewer is going to see the film as artificial and plays into that. Johnson has found a way to completely reinvent both the crime drama and the high school drama at the same time. This may not be a film for everyone. I’ll be the first one to admit that this is a strange movie to recommend. But, if you are looking for something so different that it changes your expectations, this film is a must-see.