Brick (2005)

26 Aug

And yet, somehow, he's completely believable as a badass.

All I knew about “Brick” before watching it was that Joseph Gordon-Levitt played the main character. This film won a little game I like to call Netflix Roulette: I scroll through my queue, decide upon an arbitrary variable (rating, runtime, etc.) and watch the first movie available as an instant view that fits the criteria. Had I known ahead of time I’d be watching a neo-noir set in high school, I might have hesitated. As it is, I’m glad I didn’t.

Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan is the central character in writer/director Rian Johnson’s snarky, dark and twisted mystery tale. Brendan fills the traditional hard-boiled detective role, but his own past is far from spotless. When a girl goes missing — his ex-girlfriend, no less — only he has the necessary connections to unravel the reasons behind her disappearance. He negotiates the various seedy subsets of high school society with a barely concealed sneer, irritating people left and right, until finally he pushes the right buttons — and realizes too late how much worse it is than he imagined.

Trying to demystify the plot any further would do a disservice to the nifty layering and slow unraveling that the film engages in, so I’ll stop there.

Of all the fences in all the high schools in the world, she had to stand in front of this one. Oh wait, that's the wrong genre.

The concept of a neo-noir set in a high school is intriguing yet rife with worrisome possibilities. Fortunately, Johnson keeps the film on the level by sticking to the genre’s tradition and not presenting his characters or settings in a comedic or self-referential fashion.  Johnson’s world is a heightened one, yes, but it is a deadly serious one as well. The initial strangeness of tone (I mean, it is a high school film noir, after all) is quickly tempered by strong story points and brash acting, and the rapid pacing seems purposefully disorienting and designed to draw the viewer in.  Though the early confusion is fleeting, the film wisely refrains from giving away too much too quickly. Tension is built effectively, and the overall pacing is spot on with just the right bursts of action to liven up the story.

Gordon-Levitt leads the charge with his confident work as Brendan. His performance holds this film together, and his commitment to the role keeps the movie from veering into hackneyed territory. He’s wonderful, but the film also boasts strong performances from Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Noah Segan and Meagan Good. By virtue of being a crime syndicate whodunit story, “Brick” creates a variety of meaty ensemble roles, and the youthful cast is, for the most part, up to the challenge. Zehetner is especially noteworthy in her role as Laura, the is-she-or-isn’t-she femme fatale. She breathes just the right amount of life into the icy archetype by playing her simmering attraction to Brendan with a feigned wide-eyed innocence. Segan also deserves praise for his depiction of Dode, the low-level drug dealer/addict caught in the wide net. The only snags for the cast come when they trip over Johnson’s lightning-quick, jargony dialogue. When it works, it sparkles.  But there are moments of interplay between characters when pacing feels a bit off, and I do wonder if simplified writing would’ve helped with the flow of those scenes.

A genre-bending movie such as this has a lot of room for error. That “Brick” avoids all the potential minefields is a testament to its overall quality and indicates a rare completeness of artistic vision from the novice filmmaker. The film manages to feel familiar and fresh all at the same time, and what more could an homage ask for? Three stars out of four.

“Brick”: Rated R. Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segan, Richard Roundtree and Meagan Good. Directed by Rian Johnson. Written by Rian Johnson. Cinematography by Steve Yedlin. Original music by Nathan Johnson.

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