"Brick," winner of a Special Jury Prize at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, is a high school-set crime drama with a twistall of the characters speak in mannered, purposefully overwrought dialogue straight out of 1940s film noir
. Instead of simply saying that they are leaving school early because they are sick, for example, they say, "I've got knives in my eyes." And, in the world these characters reside, a person doesn't talk to the cops, they "squawk to the bulls." Also, in place of dirty dealings going down in dark back alleys and cheap motel rooms, the settings range from the school's football field to mall parking lots to the teens' usually parent-free homes. Despite being set in a coastal town in sunny California, the dreary, overcast skies never break and the threat of rain always seems to be a thunder strike away. It's just as well; these kids don't have anything to be happy about.
The hero of the piece is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who has taken it upon himself to start researching the months-old disappearance of his beloved girlfriend Emily Kostach (Emilie de Ravin). Working his way around all of the people who might know where she is or be able to offer a clue to her whereabouts leads him to such diverse individuals as muscled hothead Tugger (Noah Fleiss), drama queen Kara (Meagan Good), sultry possible femme fatale
Laura (Nora Zehetner), and suspicious stoner Dode (Noah Segan). When Emily ultimately turns up dead, Brendan's search suddenly becomes a murder investigation. Making more enemies than friends and getting more punches thrown his way than he knows what to do with, Brendan refuses to let his deteriorating physical health get in the way of finding out the truth. Also creeping into the story is a drug kingpin Brendan contacts for help. Known only as The Pin (Lukas Haas), he carries around an ornate cane with a bird-shaped handle and works out of his oblivious mother's house (she even provides cookies and lemonade to his clients while he carries out his business).
The ways in which promising first-time director Rian Johnson plays with the archaic conventions and overstylized speech of the classic film noir
genre within the context of a modern-day high school setting must have looked better on paper. Because "Brick" is so reliant on this gimmick, the film never breaks out of being a shallow technical exercise. The dialogue, which grows more exaggerated with each minute, is subtle at first, then amusing and clever, and finally annoying once the novelty wears off. These characters, none of whom approach resembling actual human beings and all written on a base level, are so far out there that it is impossible to care about or relate to them. This unfortunately includes Brendan, a protagonist whom the viewer learns virtually nothing about throughout the picture aside from his undying love for Emily.
All inherent emotions are masked by writer-editor-director Rian Johnson's refusal to break free from his stubborn, self-possessed idiosyncrasy, leading to a frustrating plot that appears more complicated than it needs to be. The ending, which provides some answers to the resounding mystery without really satisfactorily resolving anything, is just as cold and ineffectual as the previous 100 minutes. By this time, however, caring about what was subjectively going on had long since become a non-issue. More interesting throughout was the aesthetic style of the piece. Steve Yedlin's (2003's "May
") sumptuous cinematography, equal parts foreboding and beautiful, is especially impressive when considering that the film's budget was just under $500,000. The haunting music score by Nathan Johnson, with a heavy emphasis on piano chords striking in spare, irregular rhythms, reminds of Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut
" and helps to keep the viewer off-balance.
The performances are quite good, with all of the actors at ease in reciting their wordy speeches and embracing the flow of their far-fetched, old-fashioned dialogue, but their characters aren't juicy enough to give them much else to work with. Of them, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (2005's "Mysterious Skin
"), as Brendan, is proving himself to be a confident, eclectic adult actor, while Nora Zehetner hits all the right notes as the can-she-be-trusted Laura. Additionally, Noah Fleiss (2004's "Evergreen
"), as Tugger, is eerily convincing as a dumb jock with anger issues, and Emilie de Ravin (2006's "The Hills Have Eyes
") makes an impression in a short amount of time as the ill-fated Emily.
In its depiction of a seemingly idyllic neighborhood with a ghastly and violent underbelly, "Brick" is akin to David Lynch on an off day, not digging deep enough to gather the required weight of the story. As a study of film noir
trappings, the film plays all on the surface. Director Rian Johnson fails to take advantage of his central high school setting, never stepping foot in the actual school or in a classroom. His teen characters exist only in self-contained bubbles created by the script, their lives beginning and ending on the page. One can certainly see what Johnson was going for when he conceived of "Brick"it's definitely an original idea that has never been done in quite this way beforebut that doesn't necessarily mean he is successful at it. If Brendan or Tugger or Laura or Kara or any of the rest of them could have shown at least a single glimmer of their actual teen ages, maybe they would have been easier to swallow as kids who have grown up too soon and are way in over their heads. As they stand, though, they are merely caricatures without a crucially needed entranceway to their own humanity.