Very few things make a cinephile giddier than a genre-conscious homage film—at least in theory. When such films are done right they are far more than a just a trivia game where viewers try to guess the reference. They build genre tropes from the ground up, serving to enlighten with regards to film history, provide insight to the genre, and provide a film with artistic merit all on its own. Such films, Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless or Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, for example, are enshrined in the cinematic pantheon. On the other hand, many feel like they are simply being cute in their references, and they use genre as a crutch, making even the most original ideas feel entirely stale and uncreative in its deployment of the genre it works itself into. I can think of no better example of the latter than Rian Johnson’s feature film, Brick.
Brick throws you into the world of a high-school kid that acts and talks like Sam Spade. There’s very little exposition, and important background information comes out when it becomes relevant to the immediate situation. It makes Brick hard to get into, but it also creates its own universe, one that we are peaking into, examining in the same way Johnson is examining noir. The conceit fails when the end forces the protagonist to explain things that we never could have known in a maddening “let me tell you what happened,” but by and large, it works in Brick’s favor. What limits it, however, is that the entire world in which Brick takes place is as improbable as its plot developments. Basically, our Sam Spade, named Brendan (Joseph-Gordon Levitt, who gives what remains his best performance to date), lost his insecure girlfriend, Emily (Emilie De Ravin of Lost fame), to a group of drug-dealers, and Brendan is so in love that he goes so far as to hide the body so that he can infiltrate the group and bust them all by himself. All the kids, Brendan’s sole friend and messenger, nicknamed Brain, the drug-lord Kingpin, the aggressive Tug, the mysteriously motivated Laura, and the smaller roles all talk like they are in a detective movie.
None of this makes any sense at all. Brick takes place in a world that barely believes in itself, one in which Brendan is the only kid who does not have a cell phone, pay phones are everywhere they need to be, and borrowing a cell phone from a friend happens only once despite Brendan constantly asking people to drive him to a pay phone. School is nonexistent, with people showing up for lunch and nothing else with just enough references to truancy and not being in school for us to make it think it’s a big deal. The closest thing to law enforcement in this world of heroin dealing and missing, murdered girls is a Vice-Principal (Richard Roundtree), who wants to use Brendan to infiltrate the drug-ring and solve the murder, or will otherwise just accuse Brendan. This makes no sense whatsoever, and while there isn’t a scene in the film that goes by that does not ask you to disregard whatever semblance of a world is being created, this one is particularly problematic. The other scene that goes far beyond a poor attempt at Whedon-esque “lampshade hanging” is the sole appearance of a parent, which is played for comic-relief but is also nonsensical because it’s the parent of a twenty-something drug kingpin who is supposed to have a successful empire. Where are the parents of the druggies, the murdered girl, of Brendan? Does nobody care that Brendan is getting into so many fights that he is losing consciousness due to internal bleeding? We are supposed to believe it, but Brick is trying to be too cute to let us.
I suppose that what Johnson was trying to do here was portray a high-school world in which high-school is the only reality, everything is as life-or-death as it feels. But throughout the movie, there are quirky reminders that this is school, a part of life, but not life itself. High school students interact with adults—teachers, parents, faculty—every day, certainly, but that this is acknowledged solely in the scene where it is least probable make that doubtful. Likewise, that the principal mentions that the police are involved creates a surrealistic world in which, for some reason, the police are obviously not involved, not talking to any of the kids who knew her best.
Worse yet, the meeting with the principal is the only scene in which Brendan, who is supposed to be a noir hero, interacts with adults. The hard-boiled detectives of noir are constantly challenged by people more powerful than them—criminals, law enforcement, friends and acquaintances, rich tycoons, anything. Johnson’s only concern is in portraying Brendan in comparison to his narrow cast of school associates. Brendan can take a punch, throw one, outsmart everyone, and deliver smug one-liners without breaking stride. He’s the image of “cool” that every 15 year old boy wants to be. What that makes, Brick, however, is another in a long-line of social-outcasts-as-heroes film with nothing to add but a gritty story and even less to say. He can outsmart people who are similar to him, but cannot transcend any important differences—age, power, wealth, status, etc. He’s the least mobile noir hero ever put on the screen, and why? Brendan is serving authority, not outsmarting them.
Indeed, there’s no school background to open up any of these questions. It’s as if the school setting is used to allow belief in a terribly shallow 20 second conversation about Tolkien and a cheesy and overwrought declaration of love. The school is never used to its potential: the interaction with other kids is limited, and character development is as thin as emotional attachment is unlikely. There is no dynamism between his two worlds whatsoever. The only way in which this outcast student can prove himself worthy is by catching the bad-guy. There is no depth whatsoever to the thinly veiled metaphor at work, and that it only feels like this is high school at the most awkward of times casts doubts all over Brick not just for its writing, but even as an homage to noir. Brick shows little interest in deconstructing noir, but even in its attempts to pay homage it falls short.
Indeed, very little of the film besides its dialogue and story resembles noir at all. Lighting and shadowing is rarely anything other than ordinary, only do the most conveniently set scenes find an opportunity to utilize low-key lighting and give it any kind of a mood. Most of the mood, instead, comes from Johnson’s indulgent flourishes, which include jump cuts, rarely and randomly; awkwardly shot fight scenes looking at the characters’ lower-legs, sudden cuts to extreme close-ups and then even more extreme close-ups, and generally anything else that is unmistakably the work of an “auteur” without any regard whatsoever for film grammar. On a shot-to-shot basis, Brick is so overly and pointlessly stylized that it becomes alienating and ugly; it fails to create the mood that something so deadpan and serious about noir demands. The occasions that it works prove that there is a great film somewhere in Brick, but it certainly isn’t the version that appeared on screen. The cleverness and insight are filed own until only the shell remains.
I could go on. I could talk about Brick’s lack of understanding of a femme fatale and how it would be misogynist if not for the heavy-handed storytelling gaffe at the end. I could talk about how Brendan’s two chances (in the film’s penultimate scene) to grow or change as a character are suggested entirely by over-direction and instead just confirm what we knew about him anyway. Instead, let it suffice to say that Brick falls short as noir, baffles on the page, and disorients on the screen. The movie Brick wants to be is far more interesting than the film that it is.
I recommend that everyone watch the TV show Veronica Mars, which follows a high school girl in her attempts to solve her best friend’s murder after the police fail and the aftermath of the death that has ruined her school life. The first two seasons are among the most magnificent that network TV has ever produced.