If Judge Jennifer Malkowski lived in a gummed-up burg like this one, she'd've taken a powder long ago. Can you tell she copped these words from the yegs who put out the "Brick Talk" glossary?
"You think you can help her?"
The twistiest, wordiest, could-have-been-silliest thriller of the year lets the gritty gumshoes, deadly dames, and endless betrayals of classic film noir loose in a high-school setting.
Facts of the Case
In the opening scene, high-school loner Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Third Rock from the Sun) finds the body of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie De Ravin, Lost) lying artfully in a ditch. Slipping back two days in the timeline, we see the events leading up to Emily's disappearance, including a vague and frantic plea for help to Brendan and entanglement in a drug-dealing operation. Haunted by her memory and hoping to take her killer down without "the bulls" (cops), he and his brainy (duh) friend Brain pit themselves against all the seediness and crime their depressing burg has to offer.
On the trail, they run afoul of a gallery of potential allies and enemies. The Pin (Lukas Haas), the yeg from whom "all the jake" springs, is a big-time drug dealer with (often hilarious) delusions of smoothness. Tug (Noah Fleiss) is a muscle-bound hothead who "shines a gat" and throws his fists in Brendan's direction. Kara (Meagan Good) is a "drama vamp" and another of Brendan's exes, who seems to want her claws back into him. Dode (Noah Segan), a "reef worm" who's been snuggling up to Emily, thinks he knows who killed her. And Laura (Nora Zehetner), "trouble in a red kimono," is an is-she-or-isn't-she femme fatale who may be able to help Brendan sort through this pack of jokers.
The best and simplest way to explain how Brick warps its drab, petty high-school setting into something mesmerizing and compelling is articulated by director Rian Johnson in his commentary track: "Brick is to high school as Gotham City is to New York City." Everything—personalities, relationships, sex, drugs, danger, heartbreak, and vocabularies—is amped up, but in a way that seems very genuine and true to the feel of those years of our lives. The high-school noir formula is not a totally new formula and Brick's use of it feels like a less warm-and-fuzzy cousin of Veronica Mars—a series I never thought I would be describing as "warm and fuzzy!" Brendan's is a harsher world than Veronica's, though, because one never gets the sense that the characters genuinely care about each other. When Veronica and Logan take swipes at each other, there is always that current of genuine, almost embarrassing affection that they are mostly too proud to admit to. Even as Brendan is going to such great and dangerous lengths to help the dead Emily, one gets the sense that his efforts are about obsession, possessiveness, jealousy, and power as much as they are about love and justice.
While these character studies are interesting, by far the most exciting aspect of Brick is Johnson's incredible gifts for articulation—both in the much talked-about script and in the film's visual and auditory style. There is more attention to detail packed into every moment of this low-budget film than in all the year's blockbusters put together. The sparse, haunting score that contributes just the right mood to each individual character and the framings are pitch perfect, from the extreme close-up of a faint blue arrow on a cigarette paper to the trunk with a busted lock that is often quietly opening itself in the foreground. Johnson uses his camera to visualize the minds of the detectives to whom he pays homage, always probing far under the surface of what everyone else sees. Then, of course, there is the highly stylized dialogue. Apart from obscure or invented hard-boiled terms and phrases such as "the bulls," "shines a gat," or "take a powder," the real richness (and lack of realism) comes from the painstaking snappiness of each and every line:
• "Brad was a sap. You weren't. You're with him, so you're playing him. So you're a player. With you behind me, I'd have to tie one eye up watching both of your hands. I can't spare it."
• "Throw one at me if you want, hash-head. I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you."
Much of the unexpected humor of the film comes from the juxtaposition of these tough-talking, calculated lines with high-school questions like, "Who's she been eating with?" delivered in the same deathly-serious tone. A power struggle between Brendan and the school's Vice Principal is a great, self-conscious example:
Brendan: "I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you
Most of the other laughs come from The Pin, who fancies himself a high-class, mysterious crime lord, but operates out of his mom's wood-paneled basement. The best Pin moment is the very first time we, and Brendan, see him—back turned to us, hunched over an imposing desk with an attacking bird sculpture flanking it. As the Pin turns to face Brendan and the camera, he has to make several awkward little motions to turn his heavy, non-office chair around. In a lesser film, the actor and director would try to boost the comedy of this moment, making The Pin into an obvious boob along the lines of Dr. Evil, but Haas barely registers the effort of moving the chair and Johnson's camera remains fixed, making it a subtle, even funnier little joke and moment of character development that—once again—is all about the little details. The same goes for the slightly unstable lamp by whose light The Pin conducts mobile business in his van. Occasionally Johnson pushes these moments a bit too far, as with The Pin's random comments about J.R.R. Tolkien and perhaps the bit with his obliging mother, too.
[Spoiler alert—this paragraph only]
Focus Features has put out a DVD as sleek and classy as Brick itself. With perfectly washed-out colors and a rich Dolby 5.1 track to present the haunting score, the film looks and sounds just as good as it did in theaters. The menus and cover art keep the mood right, too. The extras are more than adequate, but I can't help but regret that they aren't a bit more plentiful and creative, considering the source material. How about some postcards or an on-disc gallery of the five different character posters? An insert reproducing that clever little "Brick Talk" glossary lucky moviegoers picked up at the theaters where it showed? A trailer, for Pete's sake? What we do get is very nicely presented. The deleted and (more often) extended scenes don't offer much new material, but the unusual introductions by Johnson accompanied by behind-the-scenes video and stills are quite interesting. Johnson also takes a quirky, but effective, approach to the commentary track, doing it as a "talk show" format with different cast and crew members coming in for solo chats with him throughout. Hearing from Zehetner, Segan, the set designer, the costume designer, and a producer sequentially rather than in a chaotic jumble of overlapping comments, laughter, and in-jokes was refreshing. Although it did sacrifice some of the scene-specific comments that Johnson finds tedious, though many viewers expect them, and some directors can execute well.
In his commentary, Johnson eloquently explains the tone that turns Brick into more than just a funny, one-note gimmick:
"When you see high school portrayed in movies and TV—even in really good stuff, movies and TV that I like—it's more often than not portrayed from a very adult perspective. And by that I mean: it's portrayed as a world that is inherently less serious than the adult world…It's a silly world that's going to go away in a few years. It's a phase, from an adult perspective. But when you are a teenager, and you are in that world, you don't have that perspective…Your head is completely encased in that fishbowl. And it is life or death, these small things, because your whole field of vision is taken up by it. And that's why, I think, there is this tradition of resetting—whether it's Shakespeare or what have you—classic stories in high school. Because it's a time, I think, that we all experience that has a very heightened feel to it."
Dripping with dark style and the darkest teen angst this side of Buffy, Brick is as deliciously guilty as they come.
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