Review: Brick (2005)

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BRICK is the kind of film that really shouldn’t work. The premise: a hardboiled detective film set in an American high school. It’s a unique combination of disparate ideas, and somehow everything comes together and makes for a fantastically weird and wonderful end product.

We follow Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a self-imposed social outcast and self-styled high school detective, who investigates the baffling disappearance of his ex-girlfriend who had fallen in with a bad crowd. His obsession with finding the truth inevitably leaves him further down a rabbit-hole of lies, deceit, crime and violence, involving emotional and physical torment for Brendan and others along the way.

Before I delve into Brick’s position as a modern noir film, I’d like to emphasise that, despite most avid fans of cinema thinking they know exactly what film noir is, it remains a subject of contention among film academics. The term was coined by French critics (it literally means “black film”) to describe a run of similar American imports they were watching for the first time post-WWII. Some see it as an easily identifiable genre, just as the Western or gangster film (the hats, the long coats, the lighting), while others see it more as a loosely thematically linked group of films. Personally, I see it as the latter, mostly because of how noir has changed and been hybridised to such an extent since its initial popularity in the 1940s.

The blend of a bright atmosphere and vivid characters with an undercurrent of darkness and depravity in Brick reminded me most of Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, another film that brought a dark, grimy film trend into the light without diminishing its harrowing subject matter. Rian Johnson also pays homage to several other iconic examples of film noir in Brick (notably THE MALTESE FALCON). Aside from the unconventional setting and young ages of the characters, everything – performances, dialogue, aesthetics (anyone who says noir can’t be in colour can’t have seen CHINATOWN) and plot structure is straight out of classic film noir – sometimes taking cues from noir’s initial run of popularity in the 1940s, and at other times being more influenced by its revisionist revival in the 1970s.

The film looks incredible, with striking shot composition and bold editing, the characters are memorable, and the cast, especially Gordon-Levitt and Nora Zehetner make Johnson’s rapid-fire, Chandler-esque script crackle with energy. The plot moves along brusquely, but never feels rushed, and you’d be hard pressed to see most of the twists and turns coming. Perhaps the leaps of logic Brendan makes towards the end of his investigation are a little hard to fathom, but you could argue that’s simply in-keeping with other hard-boiled detective films – the gumshoe always has to be one, two, or even three steps ahead of the audience – and Brendan helpfully sums up his findings at the film’s conclusion anyway.

Brick adheres to the formula and style of the detective films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but transposes events and characters to a bizarre (for noir) location. This allows Johnson to explore the boundaries of the detective genre, and of noir filmmaking sensibilities in a unique and fascinating way. In the end, he suggests that it doesn’t matter where a film noir is set, whether it’s the big city in the dead of night or in and around a school in broad daylight, whether the characters are neurotic, passion-driven adults or neurotic, passion-driven teenagers, a noir film just gives you a certain “feeling”.

Last year’s time-travel noir LOOPER was my introduction to the genius of Rian Johnson, and now I’ve seen his stunning debut feature Brick, he’ll certainly be a name I’ll look out for. It’s nice to see there’s still plenty of creative individuals in American filmmaking…well, in independent cinema, anyway. SSP

About Sam Sewell-Peterson

I'm not paid to write about film - I do it because I love it. Favourites include Sam Mendes, Guillermo del Toro, Bong Joon-ho, Steven Spielberg, Danny Boyle, Spike Jonze, Rian Johnson and the Coen Brothers. All reviews and articles are original works owned by me. They represent one man's opinion, and I'm more than happy to engage in civilised debate if you disagree.
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