It seems that these days in Hollywood the Teen Film genre has become helplessly over-saturated with heavily derivative and formulaic bubblegum romantic comedies that rarely attempt to stray from the archetypes established by John Hughes in the 80s. So when a filmmaker comes along with a completely new approach, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. In 2005 film fans were paying attention to Rian Johnson when he craftily applied the hard-boiled style of Dashiell Hammett’s 1920s crime novels to the context of a contemporary California high school with Brick.
The story starts when Brendan Frye receives a distress phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily, whose panicked rambling mentions a “bad brick” that has angered “The Pin” and gotten her into deep trouble. Determined to locate Emily, Brendan starts shaking things up amongst the high school drug scene, which immediately leads to society-queen Laura Dannon, who Emily was pushing drugs for before falling down the social ladder. Laura puts Brendan onto Emily’s current squeeze Dowd, who arranges a meet with a calmer Emily who insists that Brendan should move on and forget about their previous phone conversation. Before she leaves, Brendan swipes a notepad from Emily’s pocket that contains a calling card for a secret meeting, but by the time Brendan deciphers its meaning he is too late, arriving at the location to discover Emily’s dead body. Intent on discovering the killer’s identity, Brendan starts agitating the drug scene even more intensely until he uncovers the identity of the local drug lord known only as The Pin, and from there he starts digging and scheming until the conspiracy behind Emily’s murder starts to unravel.
With its moody minimalistic visuals and ultra-stylised gumshoe dialogue, Brick could easily have been in danger of being overbearingly pretentious, but look beyond the noirish affectations and pitch-black murder mystery and you’ll find a film that is full of deft humouristic touches and engagingly characterised oddballs that reveal Rian Johnson’s intentions to entertain rather than make any sort of artistic statement. Most surprisingly is how effective the transposition of Hammet’s style with the High School context is at satirising teen angst without actually poking fun or demeaning it in any way, which in this sense makes Brick one of the purest Teen films to come out this decade.
The script is an excellent showpiece for Johnson’s talents as a writer, characterisation is excellent and gets the homage just right while the dialogue is endlessly articulate and has a deeply mesmeric rhythm of its own. As a director Johnson also exhibits a very distinct style, displaying an unconventional eye for composition and quirky use of repeating visual motifs, whilst also skilfully using staccato editing and dream sequences which serve to evoke a sense of displacement. He’s also put together a very solid cast of young actors with Joseph Gordon-Levitt dominating in the lead role as the cynical yet sensitive loner Brendan. His performance contains just the right mix of geek and grit. Nora Zehetner also impresses as the doe-eyed femme fatale. Brick is one of those rare films that not only manages to reinvent the wheel as far as Teen films go, but also with its intelligent writing and understatedly cool direction it proves a worthy successor to cerebral indie thrillers like Memento as well.
The Disc: Presented at 1.78:1 with only a 1080i 50Hz AVC encode this is a very soft, flat looking transfer that for my money doesn’t really look much sharper than standard definition, and the fact it’s only 1080i really means nothing when what you’re watching would barely pass as 720i. Gauging how much of the softness is down to Brick’s ultra-low budget origins is a bit of a lost cause for this reviewer as I did not have the pleasure of seeing Brick in theatres, but it was shot in 35mm with cameras that should have been able to capture a pretty sharp image, so it could potentially be down to camera focus and I will admit that there are a lot of scenes in Brick that appear to have a deliberately narrow focus. Nevertheless, fine detail is a hazy memory and while close ups almost look detailed, the vast majority of the film rarely rises beyond marshmellow soft.
Other aspects of the image are genuinely affected by the cinematography, Brick has clearly had a blue filter applied to give a rather stark, steely look, and the grey concrete sprawl of suburban California is a frequent presence, so skintones are generally quite pale (except for interiors, when they can appear almost flushed) and the colour scheme is understandably muted. Blue skies can look strikingly bold at times, and reds in night time sequences (which aren’t blue filtered) also stand out quite nicely in this transfer. Contrast and brightness levels are low, so blacks aren’t too deep and shadows look washed out and reveal little detail, all adding to the rather flat look. Compression has a rather low average bit rate of 21.97Mbps and noise is noticeable in the form of blocking (mostly in darker regions) and banding - the ever faithful companions of Optimum’s barebones BD-25 releases. The print used is in reasonable condition, some flecks and scratches here and there, but nothing much. Grain is barely perceivable for most the film, but can get a little heavier and slightly noticeable in darker sequences, although the image is so soft that grain is never defined properly. Edge Enhancement halos are also apparent throughout - they’re usually thick, but not too bold.
In keeping with the muted look of the film and low budget production values, Brick’s audio generally sounds quite raw and variable from scene to scene, so the dialogue can range from artificially smooth and loud for looped scenes to quite muffled and tearing in exterior sequences. Ambient sounds can also be ramped up in the mix or toned down depending on Johnson’s intentions, which can affect the dynamics, but the English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track handles all these inconsistencies quite well and delivers a clear defined sound with a 5.1 mix that creates a pretty solid, enveloping surround stage for Nathan Johnson’s effective score. For the most part this is a restrained soundtrack, but bass can kick in reasonably aggressively when Tugg’s Mustang comes roaring onto the screen.
Also present on the disc is an English LPCM 2.0 track, which in terms of quality isn’t far behind the 5.1, but naturally isn’t mixed as well and generally sounds more restrained – especially in the lower register. Sadly this release is completely barebones and contains no Extra Features of any kind, an absolute travesty for a film as intelligently made as Brick and a bigger disgrace when you consider Optimum’s earlier DVD release was rammed with extras. When is this company going to start treating Blu-ray customers with respect?