Netflix Recommendation: Brick (Johnson, 2005)
Brick is a neo-noir about Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a loner amateur detective investigating the death of his girlfriend as enemies and authorities try to pin him for it. Sound familiar? Brendan is a teen, the film is set at a typical California high school, and the authorities are school officials. There are a million ways in which this film could have gone horribly wrong, but first time writer/director Rian Johnson toes the line between earnestness and tongue-in-cheek flawlessly. It’s the rare film that works as a representative of the genre while also letting the audience know that it’s self-aware. How many film noir heroes ever met with the villain in his kitchen as the villain’s mom served them cookies? Yet there’s still a sense of danger amidst the ridiculousness– Johnson and his talented cast play their cards very close to the vest, and keep us completely invested. It’s the best neo-noir since Memento, and unlike Memento, it plays better with each repeat viewing.
All of the great film noir characters are recognizable here in their teenage forms. There’s Emily (Lost’s Emilie de Ravin), the innocent girl who got in over her head too deep; Laura (Nora Zehetner), the rich femme fatale who may be more trouble than she appears; The Pin (Lukas Haas), the drug kingpin of the town, and Tug (Noah Fleiss), his muscle; The Brain (Matt O’Leary), our hero’s source of information and main contact; and Mr. Trueman (Richard Roundtree), the authority figure who wants information from our hero. Like all noir heroes, Brendan doesn’t respond well to being told what to do.
To go into the plot in any further detail would be to give away the fun of the film. Like other noirs, it makes sure to bury the truth deep down from the get-go, so the beginning is disorienting to some degree. Also, these teens all speak in hard-boiled, streetwise noir talk. It would be easy to dismiss the film as “silly,” but when the dialogue comes from Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s lips, it’s believable. He’s just as much a jaded seen-it-all loner as Sam Spade or Mike Hammer.
Sample dialogue with Kara (Meagan Good):
“Still picking your teeth with freshmen?”
“Well, you were a freshman once.”
Very few actors could make this dialogue work, but Gordon-Levitt is one of them. He is slowly becoming the best actor of his generation, having displayed a variety of work nearly unparalleled, and all of it of the highest quality. Between the pedophilia indie drama Mysterious Skin, the teen neo-noir Brick, the bank heist thriller The Lookout, and the current romantic comedy (500) Days of Summer, he has built himself quite a reputation as The Indie Lead Actor. All of the other actors handle their parts capably as well, in particular Haas (always a reliable actor himself) and Zehetner, a quirky actress only known to me before this from a role in the first season of TV’s Heroes.
Johnson, who made this summer’s con flick The Brothers Bloom, put together a stunning debut here. He correctly analogizes the cliques in high school with the seedy circles in film noir, and blends the two together seamlessly. Also, teens do engage in drugs and sex, so he keeps it believable: certain characters know more about drugs and sex than others, which is exactly right. It’s hard to imagine that this movie never slips into full-out parody, but it easily avoids that– it’s probably the most engaging detective film of its kind since LA Confidential, which was far more straight-forward. The visuals are appropriately staged, most of them surrounding Brendan with lots of empty space, emphasizing how alone he is. The editing is slightly clunky here and there (mostly when there’s violence and Johnson speeds up the action, which feels like a film student “look what I can do” trick), but the dialogue slapped a smile onto the face of a film noir fan like me. The film Sin City went for hard-boiled and mostly pulled it off, but it was far more focused on the visual style, leaving the dialogue outside of the audience’s focus (also, some actors like Brittany Murphy and Alexis Bledel couldn’t really pull it off). Here, Johnson knows that without the tough-talk dialogue being in the spotlight, your noir will never be completely hard-boiled.