Detective movies can easily descend into formulaic archetypes, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the case of Rian Johnson’s directorial debut, Brick (2005), half of the fun is recognizing the familiar elements – the lone detective, the girl in trouble, and the femme fatale. The rest of the fun comes from seeing all of these elements thrown in a refreshing setting – a California high school. Each character in the film fulfills both a role typical of a mystery/noir, as well as his or her social role in school. Stoners, jocks, nerds, drama kids, and bullies all fit into new places in this neo-noir subversion.
The story starts out slow. At first, it seems unclear how many of the players fit into the overall story. As with every great noir story, just when you think you have things figured out, they only grow more complex. The first image of the film is of a dead girl’s body in a storm drain.
Flashback to a few days earlier, and we begin to get the basics of the story. Emily (Emilie de Ravin), said girl in trouble, reaches out to her ex-boyfriend, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), for help. Emily doesn’t say exactly what she got herself into, but Brendan knows it’s bad. She’s enigmatic about asking for help, and as Brendan spells out later, uses four words that he doesn’t understand. Brick. Pin. Tug. And Frisco. By the end of the film, this murky picture becomes completely clear.
As Johnson states in the DVD commentary, this story is far from new, and the decision to place it in a high school is a bit of suspension of disbelief designed to give the film a set of visual cues, unlike the old noirs it pays homage to. The dialogue is quick and snappy. Although it’s melodramatic, as high schoolers tend to be, it is also quite dated. A glossary of 1930s’ slang wouldn’t be a bad idea for first-time viewers. Seasoned fans of detective stories, however, may be able to guess some of the twists and turns the film goes through. The basic plotline is a complete lift from Dashiell Hammet’s book Red Harvest (1929), a story that has been used for many other movies before. It was a big inspiration for Kurasawa’s Yojimbo (1961), which was then essentially remade by Sergio Leone as A Fistful of Dollars (1964). The Coen Brothers even took a shot at it with Miller’s Crossing (1990).
As I said before, the notion that this crime drama unfolds between classes at a high school is the film’s main conceit. And yet this conceit is rarely played for comedy. The events of the film are stated to have happened in about a week. It’s a quick wrap to a high school murder mystery, but then again, the film moves at a deliberate pace. One clever kid handles things on his own, and there are no police on screen for even a second. Teachers and parents don’t figure much into this story either. The Assistant Vice Principal, played by none other than the original Shaft himself (Richard Roundtree) is the only authority figure whom we see. His relationship with Brendan is what you might expect from an ex-cop private eye talking to his former commissioner in another movie. But here the threat is of Brendan being written up or suspended, and it actually works as a realistic threat.
The originality that comes through from such a self-aware genre film is refreshing. The visuals of the film aren’t flashy, but it’s easy to tell that the more innovative shots are the result of applying creativity on a budget. Even down to the sound effects and the music in the film, everything has a very homemade, do-it-yourself quality to it. The possibilities for Rian Johnson’s next film, Looper, make me hopeful that his career as a director of smart and stylish action films is about to take off.