Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I did not have a particularly scandalous high school career; it should come as no surprise that I spent a lot of time reading and watching movies.  When I did manage to poke my head out, though, I was surprised by all the drama I found my peers involved in.  Fights, dating, drugs, alcohol, sex, pregnancy --- high school has it all.  Most movies about high school focus on superficial social cliques, but Brick makes a deliberate and stylistic decision to focus on the seedy underbelly of high school.

Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is an outsider by choice in his high school.  He's cool enough to earn some respect from nearly everyone in school, but he is indifferent to his social status and chooses to spend his time alone, whenever possible.  His ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), called him in a panic one day, rambling on about a bad brick and the Pin.  What on Earth does that mean?  Brendan starts to nose around and finds that Emily is involved in the school's drug trade, although it is unclear how much trouble she is in.  That gets a little less mysterious when Brendan finds her dead body in a storm drain.  Instead of calling the police or talking to his principal or any other adult, Brendan decides to uncover the responsible party for Emily's death at any cost.  To do that, he must infiltrate the same dangerous groups that somehow got Emily killed, figure out who played who in this mess, and muddle his way to a clear answer, all without being hassled by his principal (Richard Roundtree) and the police.

Brick is not just another high school movie.  It's actually a neo-noir that just happens to be set in a high school setting.  A lot of your appreciation for this film will depend on how open you are to that idea.  Noir is not typically given unique settings; it typically has tough guys and dangerous women, where the only thing you can truly believe is that everybody lies.  That's a little more adult-themed than some people like their high schoolers.  Personally, I thought it was an inspired idea, although the setting did cause a few minor problems for me.

The acting in Brick depends heavily on Joseph Gordon-Levitt's performance.  The lead role in noirs is typically a guy who is smarter than everybody else, and the viewer realizes things at about the same pace as the main character; he just jumps to some conclusions a little faster than the audience, sometimes.  Gordon-Levitt does a really good job of filling those noir shoes.  This is a plot-propelled film, but his too-cool-for-school performance helped this fairly standard noir plot feel a little more special.  I'm not a fan of noir characters that show their feelings, but he also did a good job showing believable grief, when the time came.
Noir heroes take a licking, but keep on playing both sides against the middle.
The rest of the cast primarily just filled their roles, but there were a few parts that were odd and varied enough to stick out.  I thought Noah Fleiss did a surprisingly good job as the hot-headed Tugger, the muscle for the drug trade.  I also liked the absurdity that Lukas Haas brought to the table as the improbably powerful Pin.  Matt O'Leary was okay as the Brain, but it was kind of an easy role.  Of course, no noir would be complete without a few dangerous women.  I wasn't too impressed with Emilie de Ravin, but I thought Nora Zehetner did a passable job as a femme fatale.  As for Richard Roundtree's brief appearance as the school principal, it was almost like he was Reverse Shaft; he was the straight man, while Gordon-Levitt told him how it was going to be, and if he didn't like it, tough.  As a Shaft fan, that was a little hard to swallow.

Writer/director Rian Johnson managed to do a lot of things right with this film.  The pacing is crisp, and he is able to convey urgency and mystery with the story.  I liked the tone of the movie, and I liked his direction.  At times, it felt a little idiosyncratic, like a lightweight Coen Brothers ripoff, but only because he only hinted at quirkiness and never fully embraced it.  What I liked best about Johnson's writing and directing is that he actually pulled off a noir movie within a high school setting.  That's brilliant!  It takes all the adult issues that high school movies like to toy with, and amps up the seriousness without being morbid, like Kids.  Plus, let's face it, it's just nice to see a high school movie that isn't about fitting in.  Like most high school movies, it overly simplifies the social groupings, but that is a small price to pay for a compelling crime story.

Having said that, I have to admit that it doesn't always work.  By taking the serious tone of film noir, this movie has several scenes that are ridiculous enough to have rough juxtapositions with that tone.  In a hard-boiled crime story, do I really need a scene where the queen of the high school theater clique is talking trash while receiving oral sex from a freshman?  Um, no.  Do we need a scene with our hero being trapped by those that he is hunting to segue into a scene where the villain's mother offers the captured hero some cookies?  Again, no.  I'm not saying that I didn't find those scenes kind of funny, I just think the film lost more than it gained by their inclusion.  Another problem that the high school setting provides is the unexpected realization that noir is oftentimes absurdly melodramatic.  On the one hand, I know that real life isn't anything like a Humphrey Bogart movie, but this film occasionally makes the notion seem just silly.  It does feel intentional, but there are just too many moments in Brick where I had to admit that, while the dialogue might sound cool, it's pretty darned unlikely that anyone would act/speak that way.  The noir aspect of this movie also made the very end of the film more predictable, because there are some character types that simply must fulfill their destiny.

Despite undercutting itself, I really liked Brick.  Is it just because I am a sucker for noir?  Quite possibly, but they did a lot of things right.  Every character interaction for Gordon-Levitt was tough (except for those with his ex-girlfriend) and smart; my favorite was when Nora Zehetner's character was being nice to him, and his response was "You really are dangerous."  That's great.  You just don't get that type of response to romance in normal movies.  Is this movie great?  Probably not, but it is definitely good.  Brick makes the best case I have seen for Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a serious lead actor, and its old-timey noir charm hit all the right buttons for a noirista like me.


  1. This is actually a pretty good review. Just a comment: I don't think the theatre queen was receiving oral sex. Admittedly, I was watching on a small screen, so I might have missed something, but from what I could tell he was just lying in her lap.
    Other than that, I thought this was fair, and I could see your points, even when I didn't agree.

  2. I assumed that it was oral because 1) theatre queen was hypersexualized, 2) the reveal that there was some dude down there was awkward and random, which I thought implied something less innocent than head-on-the-lap and 3) she's a dominating personality with apparently no regard for the feelings of others, so getting serviced while she talked to someone else made sense to me.

    I might be wrong, of course, but oral is a much more interesting choice.