November 22, 2011
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Brick may give its audience an unsettling start: plinky-plonky tinny music signifying something terrible has just happened, a beautiful girl with long blonde hair lying in a storm drain whilst her forlorn ex-boyfriend stares at her with penetrating puppy dog eyes, and then when the TWO DAYS EARLIER banner flashes across the screen, the groans are almost audible: “Here we go again”. Another “gritty” indie film that we must suffer through, until we end up right where we started: storm drain, dead girl, sad boyfriend. But, dear viewer, stick with it. The opening 20 minutes of Brick may obnoxiously demand your focus and attention, but after that, it’s guaranteed to reel you in and consume you, making it worthy of the “Special Jury Prize Originality of Vision, Sundance Festival”.

First time writer/director Rian Johnson claims to have been influenced by John Huston’s ‘The Maltese Falcon’ (1941). And where better to get your influence from than the first ever film noir? Johnson, however, does not directly grab the dark genre’s characteristics, but subvertly adapts them into a gripping teenage world. Instead of the lonesome solipsistic detective Sam Spade (Bogart) we have the isolated loner Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Yes, him off 3rd Rock from the Sun has gotten all grown up and broody. No more aliens on earth for this boy.). He is permanently hunched in on himself, with a constant hands-in-pocket stance and bespectacled geek-chic-thing going on.

But he is no ordinary geek – he is a geek on a mission, who still holds a scorching candle that seems to grow brighter by the minute for is ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin – femme fatale one. Keep count.). She fell in with the macorbe underground teenage crime ring in a desperate attempt to be accepted into their unsavoury clique of potheads, junkies and dealers but failed miserably. After a desperate phone call to Brendan, she heartlessly rejects him and later that day, Emily is dead. In order to avenge her death, Brendan frantically charges around (none of these students seem to have any homework to do) and the repeated absence of any guiding adults is glaringly evident. In fact, only two can be spotted throughout the entire movie – one of which is Richard Roundtree, the vice-principal. Though that’s no comfort, since as an authority figure, he is a corrupt and double crossing would-be leader.

The other adult is the unbelievably oblivious clucking mother of the villain – The Pin (Lukas Haas). He’s all that a noir baddy should be, and then some: he is a major drug dealer who still lives with his mummy, wears an outrageous outfit (which includes a large cane with a duck’s head for a handle). However, his most amusing scene is after Brendan has managed to get himself beaten up to within an inch of his life by the brutal yet brainless Tug (Noah Fleiss) and then meets mother who starts fussing about whether to give their guest cereal and milk or country-style apple juice.

Although Johnson makes this a neo-noir, the similarities of the genre are undeniable. Brendan meets a host of teasingly terrifying characters: Dode (Noah Segan), a drug addict who was the boyfriend of Emily preceding her death; Laura (Nora Zehetner), the femme fatale (number two) of the piece who tries to help Brendan against his wishes, both agonisingly attractive and dauntingly dangerous, she tries her best to captivate Brendan in all the usual ways: sultry whispers in his ear, meaningful glances, and of course a bright red dress (danger, danger, danger!). Zehetner and Gordon-Levitt, however, don’t quite manage to find the chemistry that is necessary to make their relationship sizzle (if one is to be cruel it manages the occasional pop), Kara (Meagan Good – femme fatale number three. Told you Johnson had subverted the genre – three wonderfully wile and wicked femmes in one delicious film) and, of course, The Pin – a much thinner and stylistic version of Gutman with more hair and an even more ridiculous outfit. All these characters appear in washed out bleak colours and wide angle shots to reveal the action to the audience.

The film cannot be labelled as flawless. Its start is arguably too slow and often its dialogue is mind-bogglingly breathy, hundred-miles-an-hour cliché teen speak - only explained much later in the film by which time the words themselves have been forgotten. However, this brings its own curious charm and coupled with the claustrophobia, paranoia and isolation that purveys through the film it is comparable to the reminiscent of classics such as ‘Out of the Past’ (Jacques Tourner) and ‘Murder, My Sweet’ (Edward Dmytryk).

Johnson completely undercuts the stereotypical high school of sunny California: there are no corridors swarming with jocks and cheerleaders barging past the “lesser” people. Instead there are deserted, isolated corridors (though we do not know if this was intentional, or there was just not enough money from the estimated $500,000 budget to pay for any extras?). There are no clichés of students out on the grounds gossiping and playing sports with friends, instead we have lonesome teenagers, paranoid and secluded. The film is captivating because it works with dark and concealed reality instead of the glossy scenes we are oh-so-fed up with. The ideas of drugs, crime and teenage pregnancy are not only central to the film but also many real-life teenagers who live in conditions such as this. So unplug the phone and don’t answer the doorbell, as yes, Brick will demand your undisturbed attention right from the start. But once you get into it, there’s no going back. It’s grimy, grotesque and a film of absolute genius. Enjoy.

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