Genre: Action, Crime, Drama
Play time: 1h 50min
Director: Rian Johnson
Screenwriters: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Emilie de Ravin
Brick is so fantastic it’s scary. It has been a while since I’ve been this stoked about a style, a story, a main character and a lead performance all in the same film. Working with a budget of half a million dollars, a talented cast and a limitless imagination, first-time director Rian Johnson has created what will certainly rank as one of the year’s greatest entertainments. Had I not seen it at an advance screening, I would have come out, bought another ticket, and watched it again then and there.
With a few exceptions, the critical response to Brick has ranged from detached admiration to dismissal as a genre-transplant gimmick. And yes, the film does begin with what could cynically be called a gimmick: hardboiled 1940’s detective film noir with all the trimmings, set at a high school. But if this originated as a high concept in Johnson’s head, on the screen he treats it with nothing but conviction. Time and again, the film pulls stunts that threaten to turn it into a lame joke, and time and again it remains sincere, gutsy, riveting.
A lot of that, I think, has to do with the protagonist. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the guy I, in my more foolish moments, wish I could have been in high school, his various predicaments notwithstanding — the confident, piercingly intelligent loner, street-smart, can hold his own in a fight. But the genius of the screenplay and the performance is that Brendan is more than an archetype. Gordon-Levitt, impossibly talented and versatile (see also: Manic, Mysterious Skin), gives him a sadness and a nobility that lends the story, writhing this way and that, all-important emotional grounding. Few movies rest their fates so squarely on the shoulders of the lead character and lead actor — if we don’t believe Brendan all is lost. We’re with him all the way.
Brendan exists in a world where high school is a den of sleaze and corruption, populated with characters like Kara the Drama Queen (Meagan Good), who is in costume for a different school musical every time we see her, and the Kingpin (Lukas Haas), who oversees his vast drug operation from a minivan. There’s also the Brain (Matt O’Leary), who’s the class genius — but the function of the class genius here isn’t to provide our hero with gadgets but to keep tabs on the other characters: what they’re up to and where they eat lunch. Brendan, for his part, eats lunch behind the school, alone.
The story is a labyrinthine affair, and it will take another viewing before I can attest to whether it actually holds up. It doesn’t really matter. The movie sells it, commands us to pay attention, convinces us that when we can’t put two-and-two together it’s our failing, not the film’s. I’m still convinced. I’ll get back to you.
Brick is entirely immersive. Its method of transplanting the genre into the setting seem jokey on paper, and in a lesser film, the stand-off with the vice principal would be brimming with irony, prompting us to laugh. And we do laugh, sometimes — in delight at Johnson’s cleverness and sleight-of-hand, not in derision or disbelief. The dialogue is perfect noir codespeak — everyone has a “play” and sometimes a “pitch”; the characters execute elaborate figures of speech that require a map to follow; “the ape blows or I clam” — without a trace of self-consciousness or self-absorption. Johnson never pauses to admire his own brilliance. It’s a remarkably confident debut.
Brick looks to the classics for inspiration, but it emerges from their shadow. Dashiell Hammett and James Cain would be proud. There may be a gimmick somewhere in here, but the film is noir through and through, right there with the best of them.