CANFIELD REVIEWS RIAN JOHNSON'S BRICK
An interview with Rian Johnson, director of Brick is a good thing. A faulty recording mechanism is not. Combine the two and add a pinch of “idiot who didn't check his equipment prior to the interview” and you get a review of the film instead of the insights of a singular talent. I can report that Johnson is a nice guy, a gifted filmmaker and storyteller, I can even run a pic of me holding my signed copy of May (which he edited for long time pal Lucky McKee) but I cannot, alas, salvage the garbled mess sitting in my transcriber. In any event too many days have passed since the film's opening for me to try any longer.
So instead I'll just share my own insights into what is surely one of the most original films of the year. I first caught Brick at the 2005 Chicago International Film Festival. I had gone to the screening accidentally and only realized after the titles came up what I was seeing. Ah, providence.
Brick is a noir styled crime thriller set against the backdrop of a modern day high school where everyone talks as if they just stepped out of a screening of Out of the Past or the Big Sleep. But what makes Brick a true modern noir isn't its dialogue. That in and of itself is merely interesting- a trick that's all the more impressive for the ability to perform it so long. The dark magic lies in the stony hearts of it's characters who beat against one another and the dark territory they are trapped in with the desperate force of condemned men. The characters of Brick are the stock of B movies tough guy survivors, femme fatale betrayers, wannabe kingpins, and childlike thugs but they aren't clichés they are shadows of us all whether they wind up floating face down in a ditch or walking off into the uncertain sunset.
Brick opens with a shot of a blonde girl face down in a drainage ditch. It's the sort of thing I'd expect from Sam Fuller especially given the concept of the film. But Brick takes place in a world all too real- apart from the world of classic noir. It's as if all those old characters were suddenly transported into the world I lived in as a teen. Even if the roles assigned are straight from the B's the emotions on display aren't. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Brendan Frye, a know-it-all loner mourning a failed relationship. When his former girlfriend disappears he becomes determined to find out the what, who, where when and how. Descending ever deeper into a teen underworld of drugs and thugs he soon finds himself caught between the school administration and the Pin- the ruthless head of the local drug scene.
Director Ryan Johnson ‘s main credit was as the editor for Lucky Mckee's great horror film May. He's either the luckiest guy on earth or a lot more of a creative player than you think he is after meeting him. How else could he get this incredible cast together? Emilie de Ravin, so far the only member of the LOST cast to make a decent flick, brings a perfect sense of woundedness to her role that makes us still believe her when the twist comes at the end of the film.
And I've got to mention Lukas Haas. Since his stunning debut in Witness Haas has, like other child actors, had to maneuver the dangerous territory of post child stardom career choices. Stay in acting or no? Celebrity or actor? Unlike Levitt, Haas has made some meh choices but he's also made the absolute most of others including his turn as the drug lord Pin in Brick. In fact he almost steals the show.
At one point while negotiating with Gordon Levitt ‘s character Haas- who spends the entire film in a black cloak clubfoot and cane getup- finds himself doted over by a mom who just wants to be one of the gang. Nothing takes the menacing edge off your persona like mom serving milk and cookies to the guy you're threatening. The scene would be nothing but hilarious if it didn't underscore the film's theme of kid's lost in the shadows of suburbia. Later we see Pin watching the horizon on the beach. He's the freest of the characters if freedom is defined by the amount of power someone holds. And yet here, looking out over a boundless sea Pin just seems like another lost soul who's actions are almost predetermined by the waves everyone else is making. Haas is a talent to keep your eye on.
Levitt is more of a cipher. His understated delivery leaves him open to charges of simply playing himself. But even if there's some truth there it must be balanced against the young actor's uncanny ability to pick scripts worthy of his time.
The act of updating and transplanting characters/plot from one time/place to another has served Shakespeare reasonably well over the years and it works for Johnson's stylized dialogue as well. Though there is a whiff of novelty about Johnson's central conceit that won't go away there's also much substance beneath it. Genuine menace, meets sometimes-outrageous humor but the quest for truth and justice makes it all seem part of the same world.
If in the end Brick sets up a thoroughly unlikely scenario for it's high school age characters it does so in order to get at the heart of the experience of getting in over your head in the high school years. Dangerous experimentations of all kinds, and testing the limits of personal power leave most of us with enough psychological scars to remake any classic noir. Ultimately this movie belongs on the shelf next to other teen dramas like Mean Creek or Stand By Me but one can't help wonder what would it look like next to other stylized gangster fare like the Coen Brothers Miller's Crossing or neo noir like The Singing Detective. No worries if you need a few more viewings to decide Brick will more than support them.