Rian Johnson’s Brick (a 2006 film that is only now playing in theaters locally) is that rarest of things: a movie called “unique” that actually is. (I don’t buy the case I’ve seen made that there’s any similarity to Alan Parker’s 1976 musical comedy Bugsy Malone.) Johnson’s concept is simple and simply brilliant. He’s made a mystery of the film-noir school that plays and sounds a lot like a Dashiell Hammett novel—most especially Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon—but here’s the catch: It’s more or less set in the present and the characters are all southern California high-school kids. Is it a stunt? Well, yes, it probably is, though it might just as easily be Johnson’s solution to how to make a classic noir on a largely nonexistent budget. That it drew more attention to this, his debut film, than a straightforward period film would have may simply be a side effect.
Does this eccentric notion work? Amazingly enough, it works beautifully. It’s not long before the conceit of hearing high-school kids say things like, “I got all five senses and I slept last night, which puts me six up on the lot of you,” sounds normal enough. Even the more obscure (and possibly manufactured) slang—such as using “put that body to bed” to “try another one, I’m not buying that lie”—comes across smoothly. In fact, it wasn’t very long before I realized I’d enjoy conversations with high schoolers a lot more if they did talk like this. Seeing high schoolers at a fancy party where one of the film’s femmes fatale, Laura (Nora Zehetner), plays cocktail piano while speak-singing Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Sun Whose Rays” from The Mikado is an easy enough leap to make.
I think a large part of what makes the approach work lies in the very serious manner in which the story and dialogue are approached—and the subtext this carries. The characters are at an age where they do take things very seriously, and where they’re creating and finding their identities. As often as not, the identities they “try on” are assimilated in part from pop culture. In this case, those references happen to be old movies of a certain type. Similarly, the fact that parents are virtually nonexistent in the world of Brick feels psychologically correct, since the characters are at the age where parents are largely dismissed in their minds. So it’s fitting that the only one whose parent we see is the emotionally stunted, much older character called The Pin. His “mama’s boy” status is as classic as his clubfoot and affectations of a duckhead walking stick and Inverness cape are for someone acting the part of a colorful crime lord.
The story itself—involving drug deals and the murder of the ex-girlfriend of the main character, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)—is as convoluted as anything Hammett ever dreamed up. On examination, it may only more or less fit together, but that’s authentic, too, since the stories in noir tales are rarely more than sort of plausible. Attitude and atmosphere are the real point of it all. Johnson has plenty of both, and as a result, Brick is at least close to the Coens’ Blood Simple (1984) and Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave (1994) in terms of an audacious debut work. Rated R for violence and drug content.