High-school student Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets a desperate message from his former girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She’s barely coherent, referring to a “bad brick” and “the Pin”, and is in fear of her life. Brendan begins to investigate and soon uncovers evidence of a drugs ring centred on The Pin (Lukas Haas) and Emily herself warns Brendan away. Then he finds Emily’s corpse in a storm tunnel…
Brick, a first feature shot on a tiny budget and edited on his own Mac by writer-director Rian Johnson, takes the plots and characters of film noir and transplants them to a high-school setting. The result works very well. Johnson has his noir down pat: a dogged, morally ambiguous hero who is more than a little masochistic as he gets severely beaten at regular intervals, a femme fatale in the shape of Laura (Nora Zehetner), an ornately written script with a side order of bitter romanticism and plenty of quotable lines, and a convoluted plot that you’ll need to pay close attention to follow in its entirety. A fine, understated performance from Gordon-Levitt holds the film together, and he’s well matched by Haas as The Pin, a tall, vaguely effete figure who walks with the aid of a stick. Nora Zehetner makes less impression, mainly because her role is underwritten. There’s a solid supporting cast, including a one-scene role from Richard Roundtree as the school Assistant VP.
Johnson makes a confident debut behind the camera as well. Shooting in 35mm (increasingly unusual for low-budgeters), he gives his California exteriors a cool-toned, bluish-grey colour scheme. Occasional humour lifts a generally dour tone: our hero being served breakfast by the local druglord’s Mum is not something you’ll see very often in movies. It’s also nice to see a screenplay where the dialogue is more than simply functional.
Brick certainly impresses and will hold your attention until the end, and especially with the dearth of much else worth your while at the cinema right now, I’d certainly recommend it. But what holds me back from a full recommendation? Film noir arose through genuine social anxieties of its time (the 1940s) and had its stylistic roots in German Expressionism. Nowadays it’s a style that can be adopted like any other, like selecting a designer dress off the peg. I couldn’t quieten the voice at the back of my head that this isn’t really much more than a noir confection that’s half in love with its own cleverness. But as calling-cards for Hollywood go, this more than most has me looking forward to what Johnson does next.