Roger Ebert opens his review of Rian Johnson’s debut feature Brick (2005) with the following quote from Elaine May’s A New Leaf: “You have preserved in your own lifetime, sir, a way of life that was dead before you were born.” The line is more than appropriate, considering Brick is, in a surprisingly straightfaced manner, carrying on in its own lifetime a style of film that was dead long before it was born. At the same time, the depth of feeling and sincerity that runs through the film makes it seem utterly, breathlessly alive. In part nostalgic for a time and a style long passed, in part playing with and updating the conventions of the classic noir, Johnson’s film transposes the snaking plots and sneaky moods of gritty detective fiction to a contemporary high school—90210 goes noir, or what we would imagine a David Lynch or Coen brothers reimagining of Heathers might look like.
The movie, which hums with constant menace and sparks with hipster slang, was awarded the Sundance Film Festival’s Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision in 2005—and, whether or not you can take its premise seriously, there is no denying it is a work of originality and vision. Brick is an intriguing experiment in determination that unashamedly demands your attention, “one of those movies than seems not made but born—a small masterpiece that’s perfectly strange and strangely perfect” (Patterson). The combination is surprising, but what is even more surprising is the extent to which it works. The question begs to be raised, why is the Hammet-Chandler school so readily compatible with actual school?