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Non-Review Review: Brick

We’re currently blogging as part of the “For the Love of Film Noir” blogathon (hosted by Ferdy on Films and The Self-Styled Siren) to raise money to help restore the 1950’s film noir The Sound of Fury (aka Try and Get Me). It’s a good cause which’ll help preserve our rich cinematic heritage for the ages, and you can donate by clicking here. Over the course of the event, running from 14th through 21st February, I’m taking a look at the more modern films that have been inspired or shaped by noir. Today’s theme is “alterna-noir” – just looking at slightly unusual choices.

You’ve helped this office out before.

No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.

Fine. And very well put.

Accelerated English, Mrs. Kasprzyk.

Tough teacher?

Tough but fair.

– Brendan and Assistant Vice-Principal Trueman

Brick works by taking all the facets of the film noir we love, and transposing it against a high school background. Like cheese and onion, it’s a combination that really shouldn’t work so well, but makes for one tasty snack.

Phone a friend?

Everyone in Brick talks like the above quote all the time. It’s sharp and it’s fast. Timing is everything, and the entire cast are up to it. I suspect that even the local junkies didn’t flunk Mrs. Kasprzyk’s English class. There are all manner of colourful and inventive metaphors and similes being casually thrown around so fast that it’s easy to think you missed one. It’s a brave move, as a single weak link in the cast could potentially derail the entire production. Luckily, it seems that every member of the film’s young cast is up to the challenge.

Brick takes place in the high school with most successful English department you have ever seen. The movie opens with Brendan, one of the school’s outcast students, discovering the body of his ex-girlfriend at the mouth of a tunnel. We then jump back in time, to give us some context to the events, although we know from the start that this is going to be a hard-boiled murder mystery for Brendan to solve.

Bren and Brain...

Brendan, as played by Joseph Gordon Levitt, is your essential noir lead character. I sincerely hope that he grows up to become a private investigator. His brain is fast, but his mouth is faster. In transposing the classic noir archetypes from the black-and-white streets to the full-colour high school, our hero is a nerd and an outcast. He is looked down at from the more successful and popular students in the school – “the upper crust” as he calls them – populated with banal idiots like Brad, who is always telling the same story about how the coach should have put him in some game somewhere.

While Brendan has come to terms with his outsider status (and perhaps even enjoys it), his ex-girlfriend aspires to more. It’s that tragedy of desire and aspiration – where you know that a person can receive what they so sorely desire, but the cost will be two high and the prize ultimately hallow. She’s grown to resent Brendan for how comfortable and bitter he’s become, “eating back here, hating everyone.” She wants to go to the top, she wants influence and power. Like every teenager, she ultimately wants some form of social acceptance.

Tunnel of love...

Brendan knows that Emily would be destroyed if she were to go with Brad. “I know what his world would do to you,” he insists, but she dismisses his concerns as a selfish attempt to keep her for himself (and perhaps she’s right). “I’m in a different world now,” she warns him, as she leaves, “and you can’t keep me out of it and you can’t beat it.”

That’s a film noir world right there, where the chips are stacked so far against the protagonist that you know from the outset that their victory will generally be Pyrrhic at best. However, the beauty of director Rian Johnson’s concept is that he spotted a really fantastic point of reference: that’s the same feeling of dread which confronts every non-conformist teenager everywhere. Undoubtedly every insecure teenager recognises the feeling that the world is against them, and that it will try to beat them down. I know for a fact that I felt that feeling at the time (as teenagers are entitled to a sense of melodrama that one can’t quite pull off in their later years).

Last tango on the football field...

The rest of the movie flows from that basic point of comparison. “Who is she eating with?” becomes a question used to measure a character’s social status. Trying to arrange a meeting, Brendan notes that “she knows where I eat lunch.” The movie’s unreasonable and cynical authority figures are not police officers, but low-level administrative staff at the secondary school. Casting Richard Roundtree as an Assistant Vice-Principal is an inspired decision. “You’ve always been an asset to this office,” the AVP states, like so many barely-tolerant law enforcement officers in so many classic films. Brendan, keen to play the game his own way, advises the middle-aged bureaucrat, “I’ll see you at the parent-teacher conference.”

The person in charge of the school’s drug trade (the Pin), is “supposed to be old, like 26.” He has a thing for retro seventies style, wears a cape and lives in his mom’s basement. As a sign of trust in his newest lieutenant, he shares an earnest opinion of The Hobbit – dropping his sophisticated and witty facade to indulge in some straightforward nerdish fandom (“his descriptions of things are really good,” the gangster explains earnestly, “he makes you wanna be there”).

The mystery at the heart of Brick is fairly straight-forward (and would almost be cliché if played in a regular noir film), but it works here because of the fun and creative approach taken to the material. Perhaps there’s no greater illustration of Ebert’s Law than this film. “It’s not what a film’s about,” the great sage once informed us, “it’s how it’s about it.” Brick is a fairly standard noir tale, but it’s told in an interesting and clever manner.

Life's a beach...

It’s a movie that runs on suspension of disbelief. You have to believe, most obviously, that people can talk like that. You have to believe, for example, that there’s no police investigation into a missing girl (and that Brendan could effectively hide the body). You have to believe that Richard Roundtree is the only vaguely responsible adult around, and nobody’s parents really mind anything that they do. However, the film makes you want to make that leap of faith. And, if you do, it rewards you.

Brick is the kind of original and inventive film that you don’t see too often. It’s clearly intended as a valentine to those classic noir films, and it works very well. The cast and crew seem to genuinely love what they are doing, and it shows through every panel. You could do a lot worse…

If you enjoyed this post, please make a donation to the blogathon if you can. All funds go to help restore the classic The Sound of Fury, a very worthwhile cause and a wonderful contribution to make to the arts. Click the image below to donate.

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5 Responses

  1. Brilliant essay! I haven’t seen this film (that will be correctly shortly, I assure you), but I can see the essence of noir despite the color and the setting. The best noir films for me have dialogue that doesn’t sound like real speech, but sounds like the poetry of the streets, of despair, of power – all those things we love about noir. The Sweet Smell of Success is similarly arch in its language, and that gives it power. Thanks for this so much and for all your support of the blogathon.

    • Thanks Marilyn. It’s been my pleasure to contribute. Exhausting, but fun. And thanks for putting it all together, by the way.

  2. This is one of my favorite new noir flicks. It does an excellent job of establishing a convincing “detective” narrative in an unconventional setting. It’s almost like a more legitimate Nancy Drew.

  3. Lovely piece! Great dissection of how it works that makes me want to watch it again. And yes, it’s very easy to suspend disbelief when the acting, dialogue, and mise-en-scene are so expertly maintained.

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