Calling Rian Johnson's teen indie-drama Brick a piece of stuntwork might seem tantamount to hitting it with a pie, but it's a high-speed wheelie of a strangely daring variety. Try this thumbnail definition on for size: a high school noir complete with a Dashiell Hammett-derived plot line and a fearless fidelity to antiquated gangster patois. The potential for film-school pretension to run amok is daunting, if not seemingly inevitable.
But Brick represents an impossible dream: the recycling -- with conviction -- of cinema's most calloused and beloved genre, as applied to contemporary middle-class life. Johnson is drop-dead serious, and his strategy's unavoidable irony is buried so deeply, you might just forget it altogether. The hair may thin considerably under Brick's hat after a while, and Hammett redone remains Hammett half-done. But while the plates are in the air, it's a spectacle of nerve.
We're given little reason for hope at the outset, with a found corpse and a brooding loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, late of 3rd Rock From the Sun and 2005's Mysterious Skin) contemplating grief and guilt. Flashing back in time, Gordon-Levitt's Brendan, bitterly nursing heartbreak like a good Bogart, is lured into his ex-girlfriend's drug-dealing-hophead troubles with a single mysterious phone call. Thereafter, he starts snooping, figuring out "who she's been eating with," how deeply she was involved with local drug lord The Pin (Lukas Haas, with a cane and an army of henchmen) and why she was killed. Every step of the process is a deft shadow of noir logic -- just showing up at the right party, or beating the tar out of the right thug, sends unspoken messages to "the right people." Brendan's relationship with the SoCal high school's no-nonsense assistant vice principal (Richard Roundtree) wittily echoes the shamus-cop dealings of scores of post-war thrillers.
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In this world, classes are never attended, the characters occupy the town's empty fringelands and alleys, and parents are all but invisible (as in Peanuts, which shares its odd philosophical DNA with noir). At times the jazzy, tougher-than-leather lingo feels like a pose, but most of the time Johnson keeps his actors' leash viciously tight, and no one riffs -- they all fucking mean it, particularly Gordon-Levitt, who handles vast quantities of arch dialogue, much of it piercingly funny, with a Montgomery Clift-like earnestness. ("I gave you Jared to see him eaten," Brendan tells Roundtree's disciplinarian, "not to see you fed.")
Blessedly, Johnson does not indulge in narration, and his characters are never self-consciously cool, just boiling with misery. What's most beautiful about Brick, though, is the consistency with which the yesteryear dynamics are used to backlight and dramatize teenage angst. Here, the high-society femme with a yen for the outsider hero is a rich bitch with absent parents (Nora Zehetner); Mr. Big is an affected pusher who maintains an artificial air of menace only when he's not in his mother's kitchen, being served iced tea. Instead of cheap hotel rooms, we get cheap suburban bedrooms and semi-finished basements; if Brendan is no longer "in" but "out," it's with the school's power clique, not the mob. Film noir's inherent cynicism is deployed here as a near-tears metaphor for pre-adult isolation, insecurity and self-destruction; it's such a simple fusion of potent American cultural ideas that it ends up seeming seminal.
First-time filmmaker Johnson knowingly likes to shoot scenes at dawn -- one of the few times of day teens can act out their dramas without the world watching. Of course, there are potholes: Johnson layers in drippy non-stop mood music, Gordon-Levitt's hero spends a third of the movie doubled over with an unexplained illness, and we're burdened with a bit too many of the post-production digital gotchas (jittery dollies, smudgy slo-mo) that are de rigueur for resumé-building filmmakers these days. What's more, Brick's plot doesn't yield any surprises we haven't already seen dealt from the bottom of the deck in 75 years of crime fiction. Most damningly, the movie's very concept keeps it limited and predictable, which is likely to be the tithe you have to pay for noir if it's not 1948 and you're not Nicholas Ray. What seems on one level to be original in Johnson's movie is, with some thought, quite evidently a cover of a standard tune, a reflexive look back in envy.
But, all things considered, I didn't see this Sundance-award-winner coming -- and the question dangles about how young audiences not schooled in the real McCoy will fathom its fusty style. To modern kids, wired to each other and their world only through corporatized entertainment forms, maybe the hard-boiled existentialist vibe will seem like second nature.