Ten years ago, teen noir Brick was released theatrically in the US in just two cinemas, which may seem like an inauspicious debut, except the film had already won a Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Festival. ‘Originality of Vision’ is a good way to describe the film, which placed a hardboiled detective story in the middle of a high school, producing an exceptionally confident directorial debut from Rian Johnson, and cementing Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a genuine talent rather than a fading child star. JGL stars as Brendan, a high school loner trying to look out for-and before long, avenge-his ex-girlfriend, solving the mystery of who killed her after she’s drawn into the drug trade of suburban Californian youths. In ten years, Johnson has gone from a small and strange film that he had to raise funds for himself to helming the biggest and most hotly anticipated blockbuster in the world. Is there anything in Brick that suggests one day its director would make the next Star Wars? How much substance is there behind the style that sees high school burnouts, nerds and bullies talking like Dashiel Hammett characters? Film In Dublin breaks this modern cult favourite down, looking at the various elements that come together to make it work.
It would be easy for Brick‘s premise to fail right out of the gate considering how it hinges on young actors delivering slang from the front half of the 20th century and explaining increasingly tangled plot points, and if a hint of irony were to creep in to the actor’s performances, the silliness would be exposed and the world Brick builds would collapse on itself. The total commitment the actors give to young people actually acting this way is both impressive and absolutely necessary for the film to work and Joseph Gordon-Levitt leads the way in the main role. JGL has made his way into the A-List since Brick playing brash leading man types, but the quieter, buried emotions of Brendan show the actor at his best. The Hollywood smarm still comes through-mostly when Brendan is deliberately trying to antagonise someone-but this is a difficult part to play. For the most part Brendan is cold and lacking emotion on the outside while barely containing grief and anger on the inside and JGL manages to portray those potentially alienating elements with a magnetic presence, all while believably selling the physical effects of Brendan getting beaten up a lot over the course of his investigation. Lukas Haas is also notable for managing to shift his performance as antagonist The Pin as needed from mysterious crime boss (and per the teenage setting, aloof older kid) to pitiful, play-acting arrested adolescent believably, while Nora Zehetner is so capable as the blatantly untrustworthy yet alluring popular girl Laura, that she deserves a place on the too-long list of actresses in Hollywood being poorly served by a lack of roles. The rest of the leads are archetypes, but well-fulfilled ones, and anyone who accuses the characters of Brick of being too cold and detached has to answer to the scene-stealing delight that is Brian J. White as ‘Brad Bramish’, the ludicrously self-confident and ignorant captain of the football team.
No matter how good the actors might be, detractors of Brick have a hard time accepting its setting of a California high school with teen characters in roles of gumshoes, seductresses and crimelords. Johnson has said that he set Brick in a high school so that audiences couldn’t lean on their preconceptions of the genre, and doing so manages to make the noir feel fresh by putting it in a different context, for example, by having the ‘police chief chews out the loose cannon’ scene be a disciplinary meeting between the deputy vice principal and a moody student. Having the very high, very dramatic stakes of a detective story be played out by teenagers might even make more sense, given teenagers’ natural tendency to heighten their own drama. What are crime story staples like the femme fatale’s ease at playing all sides, criminals acting rashly and the good girl falling in with the bad crowd but hormones-at-work, macho-posturing and the desire to fit in with the cool kids respectively?
Try to imagine telling a friend or colleague that you’re making a movie and that your cousin is going to be the one making the soundtrack. You can practically hear their eyes glazing over, right?And yet cousin Nathan has scored every Rian Johnson film so far and his distinctive and unusual score for Brick is a vital part of the film’s tone. Like the direction, there is a lot of confidence in the music despite the lack of experience and resources (the score was put together on Johnson’s Mac with a single microphone). Every key character has a distinct theme with a singular sound or instrument, whether its the haunting chimes for Brendan’s lost love Emily or the elegant piano for femme fatale Laura. Working with so little, Nathan Johnson took a mad scientist approach to the score, using everything from wine glasses to bolts tied to piano strings to create music that is distinctive and strange, adding to that David Lynch style feeling of unease. The music is also an important factor in getting that old-school dialogue to come off, having the two together gives the affected speech patterns a rhythm and flow, an overall surreal sound where both elements sound more natural paired together than they would apart.
Sense of Humour
Parody of noir has been survived for far longer than the genre’s hayday and has shaped audience perceptions in a big way (just try and find an actual film noir with jazz music), and if Brick were to wink at the tropes it uses at all, it would definitely come off as smug and self-satisfied. But some levity is required with a film this serious and stylised, and Johnson manages to inject that without selling the premise short, with humour that comes from the dialogue and his use of the frame. There’s a lot of wit in the fast-paced barbs characters sling at each other, while the incomparable Brad Bramish’s simpler approach is a breath of fresh air (“If you put me in the game, Brad Bramish, is going to do what needs to be done! Okay!? But they don’t put me in, what needs doin’ ain’t gonna get done!!”). Like obvious influences David Lynch and the Coen brothers, Johnson can use the incongruous to make things funny when he isn’t using it to make things uneasy-which gives us Brendan being threatened with a jug shaped like a chicken, or drug lord The Pin’s unexplained choice to travel in a van equipped with an antique lamp. Johnson’s organic approach to humour could be of benefit to Star Wars, considering how many of the jokes of The Force Awakens were that you were watching a Star Wars movie.
Johnson wrote his first draft of Brick straight out of college in 1997 and spent the next seven years unsuccessfully pitching it, before getting financial backing from family and friends to make it himself. The confidence behind the camera comes not only from a young talent with something to prove, but one that’s had a lot of time to think about what he wants and how he wants to show it. For all its talkiness (and much as I appreciate it, the dialogue definitely requires more than one viewing to make total sense of), a lot of the best scenes in Brick are about non-verbal communication to the audience, whether it’s the flash-forward opening or Brandon’s honest-to-goodness use of light and mirrors to find something in a dark basement, like a Legend of Zelda puzzle. Johnson knows how to put the audience in the head of his lead character, especially for a detective story, using mostly wide lenses, shooting with purpose and clarity despite the film’s arty leanings. The film has great pacing, not just moving quickly with smooth camera work but balancing scenes where the key information is conveyed with the dialogue or physically. In a film where at first glance what the people say seems to rule all, look at the Pin’s main muscle Tug, and how his character is conveyed so clearly just by how he moves, rather than him saying anything:
It might not seem like an indie neo-noir would be able to show anything that would qualify its director to make a big budget science fiction adventure for the whole family. But as a closer, look at one of Brick‘s showiest scenes from a directorial point of view; a very brief chase between Brandon and a random thug. See how the tension is created in simple ways, like by having the score rise until the thug’s knife is revealed (at which point it cuts out entirely), or by having the characters far from us in the background, Brandon not just having to run away from his pursuer but catch up to the camera that’s moving away from him? Or how the camerawork is kept slow and simple, so the stimulation comes instead from the sound, Brandon’s quick, light steps contrasted with the literal flat-footed thug, building to that loud and definitive clang. With just two guys, a highschool courtyard and no money, Johnson creates an exciting chase. Just imagine what he can do when you give him TIE Fighters and X-Wings to play with.