There is in seeing Rian Johnson’s neo-noir, BRICK, the sense that this is not just a startlingly original, wholly engrossing, and brilliantly plotted piece of work. There is the sense that it is nothing less than a flawless masterpiece made all the more remarkable for being Johnson’s maiden cinematic effort.
The idioms of the noir genre, damsels in distress, femmes fatale, mooks, wiseguys, cops, in the person of Vice-Principal Trueman (Richard Roundtree) willing to take shortcuts, and a hero with his own code of honor working against an underworld simmering just beneath the surface of its respectable environs, are all there. Johnson has grafted those idioms onto the specifics of high school, a decision that once done makes perfect sense. The emotional volatility of adolescence with its every crisis, small and large, taking on the urgency of a life-and-death situation provides the perfect milieu for what, with the addition of a drug ring, actually becomes literally life and death.
It begins, in true noir fashion, with death as Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) contemplates the body of his dead girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), a fragile blonde in cheap blue bangle bracelets. From there begins a flashback that will loop back to the present and then carry through to the end of the mystery. There is much along the way, as the intricate plot slowly unwinds while Brendan goes looking for clues to a tale that he may not want to know, and for people who can’t be trusted further than the end of his eyelashes, particularly Laura (Nora Zehetner), a cool cookie who courts him for reasons of her own and always seems to be in the right place but with the wrong people.
This is the densely packed world set in the soulless architecture of suburban southern California, a place in Johnson’s hands as desolate and dangerous any inner city of the classic noirs. It, too, is populated with the same sort of vivid characters that Brendan negotiates with the help of The Brain (Matt O’Leary), the bookish James Dean lookalike who does the research that keeps Brendan barely a half-step ahead of the bad guys. These are numerous, violent, everywhere, and mostly in the thrall of The Pin (Lukas Haas), a drug lord with a limp and a rooster haircut who operates out of his mother’s basement as she frets upstairs over whether there is enough fruit juice for her son’s constant visitors.
The action plays out in a deliciously inventive patois that is taken partly from bits and pieces of hard-boiled detective slang and partly from Johnson’s fertile imagination. Lunch is more than a meal, for example, but rather a lifestyle, but the gist of it is readily accessible as Johnson has the cast declaim the lines in precise rhythms that renders them into a poetic music riffing with a wit as acerbic as the dialogue on the dirty goings-on. Also riffing is the classic noir play of light and dark, though in this case, it’s in color, not black and white, it’s carefully detailed so that the interplay of light and shadows takes on a battle of biblical proportions, underscoring, as does the subtle camerawork, the sense of real danger and edginess of the story, and the heightened sense of unreality as Brendan digs deeper into the who and the why of Emily’s death.
Gordon-Levitt, who broke out forever from the curse of the ex-kid actor in Greg Araki’s MYSTERIOUS SKIN, here fulfills the promise of that role. His Brendan is tough and nonplussed in the suitably noir way of which Sam Spade would approve, cracking wise even as another thug cracks his nose, but with that one particle of vulnerability that fuels the overpowering anger driving him to solve the crime, no matter how many beatings he takes, or deaths he causes along the way. It’s a performance that is nuanced, as complicated as the character himself, and never less than perfectly realized.
BRICK is a consummate feat of filmmaking. It’s a slinky and sophisticated thriller that pulls its audience along at a breathless pace without ever breaking a sweat.