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?
The film starts with the hero, high school loner Brendan, finding the body of a former girlfriend discarded in a drainage ditch—shades of Chinatown and Twin Peaks—as distant footsteps announce the possible killer, or perhaps merely a witness, running away. In flashback, we see Emily, the girl, had asked Brendan for his help two days prior to her murder, then disappeared. These are the facts available to the protagonist when he turns into a typical 1930s gumshoe, singling out potential players in the crime as he retraces the steps of the victim straight into a web of drugs, death, and deceit that lurks just beneath the surface of this sunny Southern California suburb. Like the best noirs, Brick isn’t about the resolution to the murder making logical sense as much as it is about it making sense to the characters, and about the atmosphere, the situations, and the mannered behavior and language of these characters.
From the hipster slang of 1950s and ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll movies to the elaborate argot deployed by Alex and his droogs in A Clockwork Orange, cinema has made frequent use of colloquial language to illustrate the separation of adolescents from the grown-up world, and Brick fits nicely—if somewhat unexpectedly—into that long tradition, except now it’s kids playing at hard-edged, grownup chatter. As Todd McCarthy points out in his review, it is at first “mildly disconcerting to hear ’30s slang (‘Why’d you take a powder the other night?’) and recycled detective dialogue being spouted by casual-looking California teenagers… [but] eventually, the mode of delivery becomes downright refreshing, as it forces the kids to speak in crisp, precise and extremely articulate complete sentences.” With a few notable exceptions—such as when the main character barks a hardboiled speech to the vice principal (“No more of these informal chats! If you have a disciplinary issue with me, write me up or suspend me.”) and ends with, “Otherwise, I’ll see you at the parent conference” or when the threat of drug ring violence is temporarily abated by an impervious mom fussing around junior murderers and thugs with corn flakes and country-style apple juice—Brick places words that seem to flow directly from pulp pages into the mouths of high-schoolers entirely without mockery or condescension. When the main character confronts a gang of stoners (“I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.)” or, directly quoting Bogart’s Sam Spade, stands up to his teenage femme fatale (“Now you are dangerous.”), he doesn’t act as if he thinks his behavior is funny or out of place. While the director and the audience are fully, humorously aware of the contrivance of children spouting Chandleresque vernacular in clipped, over-determined cadence, the actors inhabit the hyperbolic world Johnson creates without feeling the need to wink at the audience or place their tongues in their cheeks.
“Lunch,” one of Johnson’s teenage character muses, “lunch is a lot of things; lunch is difficult.” On its face, the line skirts self-parody, but seeing dewy young actors striking the poses of hardboiled demimondaines, desperadoes and dolls got me thinking about the unexpected ways these (seemingly) most incompatible of genres—the noir and the high school teen comedy—can share common ground. As Troy Patterson observes in his review, “given the deep alienation, byzantine intrigues, and odd alliances on offer during your average high-school lunch period, it’s an ideal setting for a noir.”
This kind of story, even when it plays out not in the nighttime big city of Hollywood’s imagination, but in high school parking lots under the preposterously sunny skies, against the wide-open spaces of San Clemente, still works because it has an unshakeable internal logic. The knight in shining armor must walk down these mean streets; he must act like a criminal, enter the underworld, get himself beaten up, outsmart everyone, and, finally, give us the pleasures of sin and of justice at the same time. It’s not coincidental that all of this sounds a bit like coming of age in—and surviving—high school, a world similarly governed by its own logic (Segal). “I was inspired to do a detective movie in a surprising environment, somewhere you couldn’t just lean back on your preconceptions about men wearing hats,” Johnson said in an interview. “It occurred to me that the criminal underworld is a microcosm unto itself, where everything is about the social caste system. Well, that describes high school exactly” (qtd. in Clarke).
To begin with, the high school movie’s cast of characters is in no way less archetypal or hermetic than that of film noir, and Brick expertly navigates the connections, similarities and substitutions. One by one, Johnson ticks off the character types we’ve come to expect in noir; what struck me is the extent to which these fit the character types we expect in teen pics: the innocent, insecure girl in need of protection; a series of dippy dames, perennially in costume for the school plays, the band of popular girls at school that in classic noir would have been golddiggers, nightclub singers or bar-flies; the school principal, a well-meaning but oblivious representative of official authority embodied by the police chief in old private eye films; a mysterious, eccentric crime lord (complete with a cape, a limp, and a cane with an imitation duck’s head on its handle) known as the Pin and his band of apish enforcers, here a curious mix of jocks and stoners; and the detective’s quiet but capable helper, an extra set of eyes and ears that might have been an informant, bookie or newspaperman in the forties but here is a nerd that seems to permanently lean against the back wall of the school, seeing and hearing everything without ever getting noticed.
But it’s the world-weary, wise-cracking Brendan himself, played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a tenacious scowl and superlative slouch, that cinches the connection between hardboiled and highs school. The typical alienated teen, a loner and an outsider, was never far off from the private eye in early noirs; they are both romantic heroes with a personal ethical code and an unwavering moral compass.
The gumshoe’s disgust in the face of spiraling moral turpitude is blended, in Brendan, with the adolescent’s fear of growing up and joining the corrupt world of adults, and the resulting mix makes for sympathy more often than hilarity. Brick, through the circumlocution of noir cliché, foregrounds the strange, artificial atmosphere that permeates all school hallways and classrooms (D’Angelo 59). The situations and the talk in the film may be a joke, but the emotions are real—“we’re in high school, where friendships and loyalty, and who’s tough and who’s cool, count for everything” (Denby 89)
In the end, the film is too sensitive and perfectly attuned to the self-enclosed, self-regulating society occupied by teenagers to be passed over as an emptied out stylization or postmodern pastiche. What it borrows from noir is not simply a set of conventions, but a sense of obsessiveness, solemnity and encroaching social breakdown. The film uses its melodramatic plot to replicate the life-or-death significance and angst that characterizes subjective adolescent experience. There’s something almost unbearably poignant about the sense of grim purpose that envelopes the movie, about its juxtaposition of the byzantine codes of pulp fiction and the question of where to sit at lunch. Johnson, who started writing the screenplay for Brick when he was still in high school, has made a rare movie, one willing to acknowledge that life never seems more momentous, perplexing, and fraught with danger than it does at 17.
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