If you’re looking for a crucial scene in the ingeniously satisfying teen noir Brick, you won’t find that it involves a murder, or a beating, or a seduction by a hot femme fatale with legs that go all the way up. You’ll know you’re watching it when you see a nice lady pouring juice.
Writer/director Rian Johnson won an award at Sundance 2005 for “originality of vision,” and it would be easy to assume that it was simply for the clever conceit of taking the detective milieu of Dashiell Hammett'complete with hard-boiled patois'and setting it on a high-school campus. But what’s truly original about Brick is the way Johnson briefly allows us to glimpse people living outside the film’s carefully constructed genre universe. And by doing so, he takes something that’s dazzling enough as text and gives it a wicked layer of subtext.
Like any Hammett-esque tale worth the nomenclature, it starts out with a dame. We first see Emily Kostach (Emilie de Ravin) lying in a storm drain; in a flashback, we learn that she was once the girlfriend of high-schooler Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Emily reaches out to Brendan because she’s obviously in some kind of bad trouble'and, like all bad trouble at Brendan’s school, he figures it probably leads back to The Pin (Lukas Haas). The Pin’s a shadowy post-teen'he’s described by one awestruck student as “like, 26â€'with his fingers in the local drug trade and Brendan can only count on his pal The Brain (Matt O’Leary) to find out where Emily fits in.
Johnson weaves his way through the plot with a fierce respect for his genre forebears. There’s a vice principal (Richard Roundtree) to take the place of the no-nonsense cop, and a prototypical protagonist who takes as many beatings as he dishes out. Johnson even goes so far as to have Brendan sport a Jake Gittes-style nose bandage at one point.
But this is no mere homage or mash-up. Johnson’s tough-guy dialogue is razor-sharp, as when Brendan taunts a gaggle of stoners with the lines, “I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you,” or when The Brain says of their mysterious adversary, “I betcha if you got every rat in town together and said â€˜show your hands’ if any of ’em actually seen The Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets.” Gordon-Levitt'who, between this film and last year’s Mysterious Skin, is improbably turning into one of our great young actors'leads a nimble cast that seems to know exactly how to utter each stylized syllable. Every word jabs and hooks, creating something with its own unique, frequently hilarious poetry.
It’s almost unfair that Johnson seems as slick behind the camera as he does in front of his word processor. There’s remarkable visual brio in Brick’s sets, from the glittering mirror reflections in a darkened basement to The Pin’s straight-outta-1974 wood-paneled lair. He pieces together a terrific chase through the school hallways, and one killer sequence of Brendan facing down a threatening driver in a deserted parking lot. Nearly from start to finish, Brick looks as good as it sounds.
Then Johnson cranks it up another notch. There’s nothing accidental about the use of high school for a setting within this genre, nor is it a cynical play for young audiences. Brick is a savvy vehicle for exploring the notion that high school is entirely about trying on roles and character types'and what inherently makes Philip Marlowe a more improbable source of linguistic mimicry than Snoop Dogg? It’s here that the presence in one scene of The Pin’s mother'offering juice to her son’s friends in a naturalistic gesture of hospitality'proves to be such a stroke of genius. It establishes that the parents in Brick’s universe exist outside its stylized play-acting. And it establishes how oblivious those parents'and the kids themselves'can be to the times when that play-acting gets deadly serious.
Rian Johnson’s neatest trick is that he’s taken a cautionary tale about teens that think coolness trumps all, and disguised it as a frisky, violent piece of eye- and ear-candy. He serves up the veggies on Brick’s plate of medium-rare steak so unobtrusively that you hardly know they’re there. And he gives you the choice of washing it all down either with a straight shot of bourbon, or a nice glass of juice.