Brick (2005)

The 'high concept' of this cool indie is 'noir in high school' and writer-director Rian Johnson's most original stroke is not to copy the look (Venetian blinds and fedora hats) of the 1940s but to give his picture that suburban, concretey, deadpan noweheresville feel of '80s efforts like River's Edge or Suburbia. Because it looks like low-key realism, it takes a reel or so for the penny to drop that all the characters are acting in a manner almost as perplexing as the kids-as-hoods of Bugsy Malone.

Curly-haired Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), bespectacled but tough, is a lone operator on the playground, who has a testy relationship with the Vice-Principal (Richard Roundtree) and a valuable informant in the Brain (Matt O'Leary). When his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) desperately gets in touch wanting a meet then turns up dead in a drainage outlet, Brendan decides to get to the bottom of the case, investigating the fast set of jocks, popular princesses, drama club divas and drug-users Emily had been running with since leaving him. In the process, he meets the school's reigning femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner), dim-but-proud thug Tugger (Noah Fleiss) and non-student the Pin (Lukas Haas), a twenty-five year-old drug lord with a club foot and a silver-headed cane who lives with his Mom (she serves milk and cookies then gets out of the kitchen while the young folks talk). There's a plot to do with a consignment of drugs, and a 'brick' that has turned up fatally contaminated, and Brendan gradually learns just how far Emily got away from him before she died.

A problem is that the film is so closely modelled on the Hammett-Chandler style that it's easy to guess which of the archetypes will turn out to be the actual killer – yes, as in The Maltese Falcon, Farewell My Lovely and almost every other major private eye noir tale, the organised gangsters wipe each other out or are easily scooped by the cops, leaving our hero to have a bitter final scene with the guilty femme fatale. Zehetner is perfectly cool as the villainess, found in a cheongsam singspieling her way through Gilbert and Sullivan's 'The Sun Whose Rays' at a 'Halloween in January' party in a manner which evokes David Lynch as much as Gene Tierney or Rita Hayworth. Gordon-Levitt has to underplay to make it work, and there's a scenes-we'd-like-to-see aspect to his dick's progress as being repeatedly beaten up while he sleuths towards the answer evidently leads to internal bleeding so that after a few reels of punishment he can barely stagger on to the end of the plot.

First published in this form here.


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