Decent detective stories have rapidly become a lost art. With the rare exception of stories like Memento, the Film Noir genre is rarely entered anymore. When I first saw the trailers for Brick, a detective story set in a high school setting, I was both intrigued and concerned. If done well, this could be an excellent movie. If done poorly it could be yet another faux teenage drama added to the pile of garbage that comes out every year. Thankfully writer/director Rian Johnson completely understands the type of story he’s trying to tell. That understanding, along with the benefits of being a low-budget independent picture, make Brick one of the best, if not few, noir movies to come out lately.
Brendan isn’t your average cliquish teenager. He eats his lunch alone, content with his existence not really fitting in with any of the groups. A mysterious message from his ex-girlfriend Emily forces him to get back in the game however, busting heads until he’s finally able to track her down. Unfortunately what he finds is her corpse, sending him on a mission of vengeance, sorting through a dark underworld of crime and detention, butting heads with gangs and the assistant vice principal as he tries to find out why Emily was killed and just who was responsible.
If this story had been told as straight Film Noir it would have felt too much like the films that inspired it, like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. While it would be great to see movies like those exist again, I’m not certain those movies would work for modern day audiences. Instead, by placing the story in a high school setting, Johnson gets to play off those simple archetypes without boring the audience.
As Brendan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (best known for his work on “3rd Rock from the Sun”) plays a teenager a lot more people can probably relate to than the clichéd jocks, geeks, and misfits of many other movies. While I thankfully didn’t have a mystery to solve, Brendan is a lot closer to what I felt like as a teenager than The Breakfast Club or (worse) films like Never Been Kissed.
With a mystery story going on around them, the other characters become even more mysterious. Nora Zehetner plays the femme-fatale Laura. The kind of girl who would already be a mystery in a normal environment, but becomes the girl you want to trust (but are afraid to) in this setting. Lukas Haas introduces the outside world as crime boss The Pin (“an older kid… maybe even 26”). He’s past the high school years but still fits the noir world perfectly as he walks around wearing a cape with two clearly differently sized feet that are never explained. It’s just the quirky appearance of a potentially villainous character. Meanwhile the lovely Emile de Ravin (“Lost”) provides an appropriately haunting appearance, motivating Brendan on his quest.
Because simply setting a mystery in a school isn’t enough for Johnson, the movie takes on an appearance and a feel appropriate for the noir setting. Dialogue such as “you’re on the bright side of dim” overtakes the film, but not just because Brendan is a weird kid who speaks that way (which would have been a very easy trap to fall into). Everyone is part of the noir setting, with the possible exception of the odd interruption of normality as The Pin’s mother tries to make sure Brendan has a good snack at one point. The film becomes very artistic in shot composition and story, but all within the confines of making the story work. It’s never a distraction from the story, all fitting together quite beautifully.
In order to accomplish telling the story he wanted to tell, Johnson had to create a tight tale with little extraneous material. As such, Brick is the type of movie that leaves me wanting more. Since all we get is the information relevant to this story I’d love to see more about these characters, another movie that gives more information about the people and the world around them as Brendan chases down another crime. Even if that next story never comes, Johnson has crafted something amazing with Brick that will endure as a good representation of film for a long time to come.
Independent films usually make some of the best DVDs. Because they are less about the studio and more driven by the creators of the work, they tend to have plenty of bells and whistles to show off that love. Sadly, this is an area where Brick is lacking, with few features and a curiously mediocre transfer.
Usually I don’t comment much on the transfer of a movie to DVD unless there is something specific to comment about. Unfortunately in this case there is. For the most part the video transfer isn’t bad. Occasionally a camera shot gets grainy, something that stands out because the preceding and following shots are clear. Thankfully it doesn’t detract too much from the picture. The sound on the other hand isn’t a clean mix. There are times the dialog is hard to separate from the music. Given that the rhythm of the patter and what’s being said are so important to the story, this is one area I wish more care had been put into the DVD transfer.
A commentary accompanies the film with an interesting approach. Johnson states his belief that “scene specific” commentaries get boring after a while because they deteriorate to the commentators just recounting exactly what’s occurring on the screen (something I’ve certainly seen more than my share of). Instead Johnson talks about different aspects of making the movie, which was filmed in his hometown. Every so often he breaks from his commentary and brings in a member of the cast or crew for five to ten minutes to talk about some specific aspect of the movie. It’s a great approach to commentaries, breaking from the typical “grind them out” mentality that is far too prevalent these days.
Fifteen to twenty minutes of deleted scenes are included, although mostly they are extended versions of scenes or alternate takes. As Johnson explains, the story was pretty tight already, making editing a bit challenging when the film comes in long. As a result, nothing that was cut was all that important. Mostly it’s just information that gets stated somewhere else in the movie. The two really interesting pieces include a confirmation of the relationship between Laura and Brendan later in the movie which Johnson felt interrupted the movie for him so cut, leaving what happens up to each individual audience member. The other is an alternate version of the ending, the version that was submitted for Sundance consideration. In this case I’m really glad Johnson changed how he approached the scene, which spells out finally for the audience how everyone was tied together. Originally the scene was conceived as one continuous shot – an approach I’m almost always in favor of. In this case, however, it was the wrong approach, and ends up robbing the scene of tension and some of the actors’ emotion. It’s good to see how Johnson originally wanted to make the scene happen, but it’s better that it’s seen as a deleted scene.
The only other extra feature is the audition tapes of Nora Zehetner (one of the most attractive femme-fatales to hit the screens in years) and Noah Segan. I was really hoping for more behind the scenes material, especially to hear Johnson talk about what inspired him to make the movie and the rest of the actors give a take on what it was like to work on this film, but sadly, nothing is there.
For fans of Film Noir, Brick is almost certainly a “must own.” For others, the movie will appeal on a case by case basis. I definitely can see it becoming a cult classic; the type of movie fans recommend to others who have never even heard of it. With that in mind, take my recommendation: check out Brick. Even if the DVD is short on bonus material, the movie itself is the real gem.