The hook of Brick is wonderfully simple; a 1940s film noir set in a 21st century high school. This in itself would be intriguing enough but Rian Johnson’s excellent thriller surpasses expectations by keeping not only the trappings of the noir style but also the language. His hero talks like he’s overdosed on viewings of The Maltese Falcon while his femme fatales would do honour to Barbara Stanwyck. Johnson, in love with the style, emphasises that while times may have moved on, some things have stayed the same and the classic noir will never be out of date; the human race is still wallowing in its own ordure; women can still fuck you up; and a schmuck, no matter how much he tries to be a hero, will always defiantly remain a schmuck.
What immediately strikes you about Brick is how dark it is. Not in terms of cinematography necessarily but in terms of tone and atmosphere. Joseph-Gordon Levitt plays Brendan, a high school senior whose girlfriend dies in mysterious circumstances shortly after giving him a desperate phone call. Investigating her murder, with the help of his friend Brain and the hindrance of the alluring but unnerving Laura (Zehetner), he finds himself drawn into a drugs ring and begins to find out things which strike all too close to home. It’s a film which begins with a tragedy and culminates with revelations which are harrowing and painful, leaving the central characters lost and broken. There are certainly no happy-ending concessions and some audiences may find the film alienating. Nor is it a realistic film, per se. We see things from the damaged point of view of Brendan and his perspective is not a remotely objective one. Complaints about the lack of realism in, for example, the portrayal of the high school or the age of the students seem to me to be missing the point, rather like complaining that The Maltese Falcon doesn’t contain any exterior scenes and is obviously shot on studio sets. Out of context, some elements of the film would seem florid and over the top but within context, it works very well for the running time of the film.
Johnson’s love of noir extends to the characterisation. Nora Zehetner makes a cracking femme fatale, slinking around Brendan with erotic malice, particularly in her party scene when she sports a stunning pencil frock that makes her resemble Gene Tierney. Laura is, like most femme fatales, damaged herself but she projects her spite outwards. In a smaller role, Meagan Good makes a strong impression as another dangerous lady, the drama queen Kara who keeps a freshman at her beck and call and speaks in a series of sexually charged suggestions. Noah Fleiss is wonderful as Tugger, the dumb tough-guy who isn’t so dumb or so tough, and he makes an unforgettable visual impression in his first scene as he walks up to Brendan, hits him and then retires.
The most baroque of all the characters is the Pin, the local drug lord with a withered leg played by a remarkably quiet Lukas Haas. This is a wonderful portrayal of the banality of evil as the Pin, who dresses in an elaborate black cloak and carries a cane, sits in his mom’s house drinking apple juice.
The central character of Brendan is a difficult one – an man embittered by experience in the body of a teenager – but Joseph-Gordon Levitt works wonders with it. He gets the look spot on – the matted hair, the specs, that awful jacket which he clings to like a security blanket – and his quiet eloquence seems to come from another world. In a sense, this is the point - Brendan, like so many noir heroes before him, does come from another world, one where kindness and chivalry are still qualities to be valued. In the environment in which he finds himself, Brendan‘s basic goodness is a weakness and he becomes a classic fall-guy. Levitt is becoming one of the best young actors around and while his deliberately subdued performance here lacks the sheer guts of his work in The Mysterious Skin, it’s totally convincing.
Johnson’s direction is slick and well paced, although his set-ups are occasionally a little self-conscious without having a pay-off. However, I can forgive a lot for the beautifully staged individual scenes, such as the one where Brendan meets his Vice Principal, played by Richard Roundtree and the two have a square-off. As a director, Johnson is still learning but as a screenwriter he’s already in the first rank. The film uses 1940s slang which is initially quaint but eventually has the effect of making the film seem directly connected to another time and another place. It’s also refreshing to hear a script which enjoys language so much. Take this example where the Pin talks about his business:
“Ask any dope rat where the junk's spraying and they'll say they scraped it off that, who scored it off this, who bought it off someone; after four or five connections, the list always ends with the Pin. But I betcha you got every rat in town together and said show your hands if any of 'em actually seen the Pin, we'd get a crowd of full pockets.”
There’s no need for these extravagant verbal flourishes but they’re certainly a lot of fun and they fit the style to a tee. It’s also cause for a slight double-take when, at the end, you realise that there is not one single piece of swearing in the movie.
The ending of the film has aroused a good deal of comment, largely due to the Lost In Translation style gimmick of including a whisper which the audience can discuss endlessly on the way home. What’s actually said is pretty clear here once you see the film on DVD and can turn up the volume; but there’s still enough to allow for a considerable amount of personal interpretation.
|The following text contains spoilers. Click and drag over this box to view.|
|Does ‘motherfucker’ mean that Brendan made Emily a mother or that she was a mother when he fucked her? Is it a term of abuse which leaves the issue wide open? Is Laura simply messing with Brendan’s head again? Can we trust anything in the film anyway given that it’s told from Brendan’s unreliable point of view?|
The irony is that the actual revelations in the last twenty minutes are not necessarily as interesting as what leads up to them or, indeed, one’s own construct of what has happened. But since this is common to a lot of classic film noir, where the plots are often shrouded in confusion by the final reel, it seems entirely appropriate to find it here. Incidentally, there is more than enough food for thought in the film without indulging in some of the dafter internet theories – for example, that Brain only exists as part of Brendan’s mind, an idea which is so ludicrous it could only have originated from an overenthusiastic viewer of Fight Club.
Brick was made on a ludicrously small budget – about half a million dollars – and yet it doesn’t look cheap. It’s visually elegant and much credit for this should go to the DP Steve Yedlin who creates a look of chilly blue hell – check out his work on Dead Birds and see a major talent in the making. Rian Johnson may try his luck at times – there’s a beach scene between Brendan and the Pin which borders on the ludicrous – but the film is, overall, a remarkably consistent achievement which echoes in your mind long after its over and has a seriousness and intelligence which is rare in current American filmmaking.
Optimum’s region 2 DVD of Brick is a very impressive package which includes all of the features of the R1 and adds some exclusive UK features.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer is dazzling. Colours are strongly defined, both the brighter shades and the vast array of blues and greys which are so vital to the film. The darker interior scenes are crisp and devoid of artifacting and there is plenty of detail throughout.
The soundtracks are subtle to say the least but this isn’t the kind of film which offers a stunning surround sound experience. Dialogue is clear throughout and the music comes over best. The 5.1 track doesn’t add much to the 2.0 surround track.
On the first disc, we get an excellent commentary from director Rian Johnson. Johnson is very articulate and engaging and he’s joined, talk-show style by Nora Zehetner, production designer Jodie Lynn Tillen, costume designer Michele Posch, actor Noah Segan and producer Ram Bergman. Johnson is generally better on his own and the moments with the women are a bit embarrassing at times but there’s lots of production information here and if you like the film then it will certainly add to your appreciation of it.
Most of the second disc contains new features for the UK release. Carried over from the R1 DVD are the deleted and extended scenes and very good they are too. I particularly liked the full version of Laura’s “The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze”. The deleted scenes contain lots more memorable dialogue which is obviously surplus to requirements but is good to hear. Also repeated on the UK disc are the screen tests for Noah Segan and Nora Zehetner.
The new features are headed by an excellent interview with Johnson which lasts about thirty minutes and pulls together in one place some of the material spread out over the commentary. Johnson doesn’t give much away but he reveals enough to make another viewing of the film compulsory afterwards. “Making of the Soundtrack” runs 11 minutes and features composer Nathan Johnson talking about the music – he is Rian’s brother by the way – and particularly his decision to avoid ‘bubble-gum’ pop on the soundtrack. He describes the score as coming from a ‘Junkyard Orchestra’. The score is showcased on a two minute snatch of the film – “Pin’s Den” – which is presented in a music-only format. Rian Johnson’s Video Diary was made for the BBC Film Network and runs about 5 minutes as he discusses his promotional trip to London. “Chickenscratch Storyboards” is a chance for us to see Johnson’s very primitive storyboards which he prepared before shooting. A feature about costume design runs a couple of minutes and the second disc is wrapped up with some theatrical trailers.
Sadly, there are no subtitles at all on this DVD and that is the only real disappointment of the otherwise splendid R2 release of Brick.