High School Noir
“Brick” is the feature film debut of Rian Johnson, and just like “Looper” it takes a familiar genre and gives it a fresh spin. Only that in the case of “Brick” the genre in question is film noir and the fresh spin is the fact that it is completely set in a high school environment.
At first this may seem like an odd fit but “Brick” actually makes it look quite seamless, and upon closer inspection it is not hard to understand why. Noir in many ways requires an outsider that investigates a crime within a certain social sphere. And what is a high school but a social sphere where all kinds of different types are represented through their little cliques. That microcosm even has its own outsiders and rejects that operate on its fringes.
That is what the Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe character of “Brick” is - he’s that mysterious loner that every high school has, his name is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his investigation revolves around the murder of his ex girlfriend Emily. And in classic noir fashion that investigation will face Brendan with the highest social strata of this microcosm, the jocks and the popular girl, as well as the seediest aspects of it, which is an underground drug trafficking ring.
However this story is not presented as your average high school film as it takes on a very stylized neo-noir aesthetic that heightens the seriousness of these events and the intricacies. In fact this is the only point where the film might disengage you as an audience member because if you can’t buy in to the idea of this heightened and stylized high school reality then the film will deflate dramatically.
And it is not hard to disengage with the film on this level because these teenagers talk in “noir talk”, which makes them the most brooding and the most intelligent and the least excitable teenagers ever. It has that same quality like “Juno” where the teenagers on the screen are almost not plausible. Because we all know what teenagers are like, and we all went to high school, so it’s very easy to disengage on that level because our personal experiences just simply do not relate to this. However if you buy in to this heightened and super stylized reality of “Brick” then you may be surprised by how well the damn thing works as a whole.
The plotting of “Brick” is not as complex or surprising as is the case with the great films of the genre, but it does provide a solid and engaging mystery and a set of characters that serve the film’s purpose fantastically. The visual style is also great but mostly in how restrained it is because, although “Brick” has a unique aesthetic, it is not a very intrusive one, even though it does have stylistic touches like jump cuts and some cool transitions.
The film also owes a lot to its young cast that really delivers and never overplays or undermines the material that they’re working with. They are actually what makes this high school noir spin on the genre work first and foremost, and this spin is by far the film’s most fascinating quality. But as I said it also hast the potential to be its most damning.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt - Brendan
Nora Zehetner - Laura
Lukas Haas - The Pin
Noah Fleiss - Tugger
Emilie de Ravin - Emily