Film: Noir, Revisited

Rian Johnson's visceral yet flawed Brick employs many a classic film noir technique

Focus Features

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Brendan, a teenage Humphrey Bogart of sorts, in Brick.

First and foremost, Brick should be seen to witness the arrival of a gifted and imaginative new talent, director/writer Rian Johnson.

His first feature is a dark, melancholy homage to film-noir movies and the hard-boiled detectives who starred in them. Only it's set among high-school students in a Southern California coastal community.

A USC film-school graduate in his early thirties, Johnson shows a command of a film's "plasticity" — the disparate elements that combined make a movie seem as three-dimensional as life. He's as promising a visceral newcomer as Memento's Christopher Nolan or Pi's Darren Aronofsky, and he'll probably be making a $200 million comic book movie by this time next year.

Brick's muted-color cinematography and demure lighting are masterful — one shot of a sinister character called "The Pin," his face isolated in an otherwise pitch-black frame with just enough light to illuminate the center of his face, is a chiaroscuro effect worthy of Caravaggio. Jump cuts, zooms and flashbacks are used just enough to jolt the story forcefully forward when need be — never to show off. And the haunting score, which borrows from Free Jazz, Rock and Classical New Music, always augments the mood.

Apart from all this, the premise works surprisingly well considering how gimmicky it is. After all, the film that Brick most immediately recalls stylistically is Alan Parker's 1976 Bugsy Malone, in which children portray gangsters. (It starred Jodie Foster and was released the same year she made Taxi Driver!)

And if Brick ultimately fails to convince, it's not because Johnson ever treats his project as a knowing paean to films past. There's no pretension here. Rather it's because — since these characters are teens — it gets a little ugly watching the beatings and violent killings — true to the film-noir genre — that emerge as the complicated plot develops.

Or, perhaps, it's because we're used to naturalistic movies like River's Edge or Mean Creek about teens that kill. But wrapped in noir, the story seems a reach. Yes, kids today can be really violent ... but they don't talk as if Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler are their favorite writers.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt, wearing John Lennon wire rims, shaggy dark hair and shaggier clothing, plays Brendan, a laconic but cocky high-school student who receives a desperate phone call from an old girlfriend — at a public booth on a highway. It's something about a "brick" gone bad, and she sounds desperate. Then a car races by, a cigarette is flipped onto the highway and the plot is off and running.

Gordon-Levitt's Brendan is meant as the teenage Humphrey Bogart of The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. A sullen, courageous romantic with a sadistic streak — and maybe a masochistic one, too — who can take anything dished out. Gordon-Levitt stays in character throughout, but a boy can't convincingly play a man no matter how hard he tries. As a result, he winds up evoking not Bogie but a younger Keanu Reeves, which isn't a good thing.

Still, the idea of putting a high school Bogie to work on what quickly becomes a murder case involving a narcotics ring has its appeal. The milieu is fascinating — kids hanging out by the trash bins behind the school, getting wasted and trading threats. The assistant principal serves as the "cop" who tries to pressure a reluctant Brendan for information. And a nearby parking lot becomes the site of a frightening chase between pedestrian Brendan and a car.

The villains are Brick's most fascinating people. As The Pin, the tall, razor-thin Lukas Haas has a bit of the lonely, sensitive (but dangerous) torpor of Peter Lorre, but is also something new. Holding a cane to steady himself, operating out of a wood-paneled basement den but willing to go upstairs so his doting mom can pour orange juice, he's vividly detailed.

His "muscle" — Noah Fleiss' Tugger — seems modeled on Moose Malloy of 1944's Murder My Sweet, which is an adaptation of Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely. But only to a point. He's scary in a pumped-up, contemporary teen thug way.

Brick made me recall Robert Altman's classic The Long Goodbye, a 1973 adaptation of Chandler set in the sunny, hedonistic clime of do-your-own-thing Southern California. Unlike Johnson, Altman wasn't merely updating convention like Brick, he was stripping it of everything dated and stale and reinterpreting it for the times. He was a visionary working in a time when pop culture demanded it of artists.

We're living in a time when a soft, indiscriminate pop culture demands much less, so it's good to see Johnson push noir as far as he does. But his film is a calling card, not a landmark. Grade: B-

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