Dir: Rian Johnson

Patricia Ducey

If Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler had been student filmmakers and not mature, hardboiled fiction writers, they might have produced Brick, writer-director (and local boy) Rian Johnson’s debut film. Johnson snagged the Sundance “originality of vision” award for Brick, doubtless for setting this murder mystery cum seedy underbelly film noir in the unlikely surroundings of a suburban California high school. Shot entirely in the sun-dappled beach town of San Clemente, Brick is noticeably low budget and hand held; more money for adequate lighting and better sound (to showcase the rapid-fire doper/slacker patois) would have helped immeasurably to follow the twisting, turning noir plot. His protagonist Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, formerly of 3rd Rock from the Sun) as a result remains a one-note cipher, his far-fetched brilliance as a detective unexplained. The teenage gumshoe formulates a strategy and follows through with improbable alacrity; he lacks any of the weaknesses (for dames, for dope) that would ensnare a Jake Gittes or Philip Marlowe and send them down the primrose path to a more entertaining (for us, anyway) hell. Johnson doesn’t use the high school milieu as a plot device, with one delicious exception: Brendan can ascertain anyone’s social status and probable loyalties with the answer to one question: Who does she eat it with?

Brendan eats by himself, out behind the school by the dumpsters. His past love Emilie (Emilie DeRavin, recently Claire of Lost) joined up with him there for a time but baled eventually for a more lively crew. The film opens with Brendan at the mouth of a drainage tunnel where he has come upon a dead body--we soon find out the dead girl is his adored Emily lying dead in the shallow runoff. We backtrack two days as Brendan takes her distraught call, a frantic plea for help laced with clues we largely miss because of the inferior sound. He spends the rest of the film trying to find her; eventually, after his grim discovery, he embarks on a quest to solve her murder and, we come to understand, exact his own sweet revenge.

In the meantime, Johnson takes us on a journey through a demimonde that hums along parallel to, but never quite intersecting with, the adult world. Johnson peoples his world almost entirely with the under-18 set, with the exception of a school vice principal and gang leader “The Pin’s” mother, who serves milk and cookies to her son’s buddies . . . er, minions. Gordon-Levitt does his best with a monochromatic character, and Lucaas Haas is just plain silly as The Pin--overdressed in a black cape and sporting a cane--and also underwritten. Nora Zehetner notably stands out, though, as Laura, the cheerleader and utterly believable femme fatale.

The most successful teen flicks know that adult life is just like high school, with the same unrelenting search for success and acceptance. Brick misses that point; although Johnson is a promising filmmaker, but could have used his school for more plot and less set dressing. Whether Brick is a $10 movie or $4 rental is up to you—just be sure to visit the website (http://www.brickmovie.net/home.html) and study the glossary first.

-- Patricia Ducey

Copyright Web del Sol, 2006

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