Monday, 29 March 2010
Brick: Sam Spade the Teenage Years
Brick is an interesting and mostly successful experiment in mixing two genres you’d normally think were un-mixable. In this case the teenage high school drama and the old fashioned hard-boiled detective film noir.
Cynical street smart loner Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets a rambling phone call full of fear and desperation from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) who recently dumped him to run around with some nefarious types including drug dealers, thugs and pot heads. Brendan can’t ignore Emily’s jumbled plea for help because he is still in love with the girl. And so he sets out to find her. Despite him being the odd man out at school, Brendan always keeps his ear close to the ground and has a quick mind and a sharp tongue that gets him in to all sorts of bloody scrapes in his mission to find Emily. And find her he does, right at films start in fact, dead in a drainage tunnel. The search for her is then told in flashback in true detective film fashion before the story moves on to the search for her killer and the reasons behind her murder. Brendan single-mindedly investigates Emily’s life since she left him and the weeks and days leading up to her death. He searches for clues and uses contacts and bluffs so as to find out what happened to the girl he loved who broke his heart. Brendan's investigations soon lead him to meet with possibly the most archetypal character in such tales: the femme fatale. In Brick this role goes to Nora Zehetner as Laura, a slinky, stylish, doe-eyed lovely who hangs out with the villains and who has her eye on Brendan. As with the best of the genre the story soon leads to convoluted plotting - who was doing what to whom, secret affairs, rip-offs, double crosses and other similar shenanigans.
What is particularly cool about Brick is how it really does play to the iconography of the detective film/film noir genre. Brendan is basically a proto-Sam Spade. He is smart, tough, cynical and quick with deadpan one-liners and vicious retorts. He travels the town and the school interrogating people, beating info out of strung out junkies and avoiding the come-on from the occasional young lady he meets along the way. But as well as dishing out the occasional bout of violence, Brendan also gets the proverbial kicked out of him throughout the story. So much so that by films end he is a blooded and broken and limping mess. Like any good hard boiled gumshoe he also has a mutually beneficial yet antagonistic relationship with the authorities - in this case the school’s Assistant Vice Principle Trueman (Richard Roundtree.) Also, at the end of the tale, Brendan kinda wins and yet doesn’t, the events of the story leaving him even more hard and cynical than he was at the start.
So, yes, many of the genre conventions and archetypes are present and correct. And that includes the dialogue too.
The words in Brick zing at a pace and are delivered in sharp, dense, aggressive monologues, expositions, one-liners and retorts. It really does sound like an old Bogart film only with its own playful style added, which is still kinda weird when coming from the mouths of teenagers in such contemporary and blandly recognisable environments. But I love stuff like that. I love stuff where language is played with and used in different and creative ways. It’s part of the reason I love Joss Whedon’s work and have loved everything so far from Diablo Cody. The only problem with the language in Brick is that it is delivered at such a pace, sometimes being mumbled as well, that it can often be difficult to make out. You have to listen pretty darn hard to what is being said.
Of the cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt is excellent as Brendan. He really does sell the tough, cynical world weary loner while also managing to appear as a vulnerable everyman with his thin body, straggly hair, plain clothing and glasses. It shouldn’t work. And yet it does. This is a testament to Gordon-Levitt’s talent. He is one of the best young actors working in films today. Nora Zehetner as femme fatale Laura is also very good. She captures the spirit of the role perfectly. You can see why any man would fall for her but can also sense the danger and manipulation behind her lovely eyes. Lukas Haas as Pin, the drug dealer, is low key, weird and pretty creepy. He reminded me of Barnabas Collins, the vampire from TV’s Dark Shadows. He looks like him, dresses like him and is similarly otherworldly. Noah Fleiss as Tugger is scary and effective in the psychotic thug role. And Matt O’Leary as Brain, Brendan’s only friend and his main source of help is strong as well. The rest of the cast are all fine with Richard Roundtree doing a fun turn as the hard ass cop…um…I mean Vice Principle who’s always on Brendan’s case.
Writer/Director Rian Johnson took nine years to write and then to finally make Brick after scraping up less than half-a-million bucks from friends and family. He shot it in twenty days in and around his own hometown using real locations (no sets) such as the local high school where he went as a kid. The script was actually written around the real key locations of the film: the high school, the drainage pipe, the phone box etc. And using the sparse locations and minimal to non-existent design and art direction lends Brick a realistic, stripped down feel. Johnson directs in an arty yet precise manner. Every shot is carefully constructed to sell story and character with the editing being just as sharp and precise. There is an excellent foot chase through the school built mostly around sound effects of shoes hitting concrete before then ending in a blackly humorous way. Also, DP Steve Yedlin did a great job in lighting the film. There is a beautifully lit sequence in a dark basement where Brendan uses sunlight and a mirror to search the room.
All in all Brick is an interesting and pretty entertaining experiment of a film helped a great deal by a strong cast - especially the ever-impressing Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I can’t say I loved Brick as I’m not a massive fan of the genre it is mostly riffing on, although I can appreciate the iconography and coolness associated with it. To take the central idea of moving that genre in to a high school setting where the emotions and experiences of everyday teen life - its angst, its first loves, its rivalries - are already heightened and seem world shattering to those involved was a bold and interesting choice. I expect a lot of people just won’t get over the film’s obvious mix of genres and will find the language used by the characters faintly ridiculous. But if people can get past that and can get in to what Rian Johnson was aiming for (and mostly hitting on target) then Brick should intrigue and entertain in equal measure.