When I wrote about Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom a year and a half ago, I asked if any of you had seen his previous movie, Brick, a hard-boiled detective story set in a modern high school. Nine of you said in the comments I needed to see it, and several more of you have suggested it since then. I’m usually pretty safe with reader recommendations … and this was no exception. I was blown away by Brick – very smart, occasionally funny, great narrative greed, and all kinds of homages to one of my favorite genres in literature. (Worth mentioning: it’s just $3.94 on DVD right now at amazon.)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, an intelligent but slightly aloof high school student whose ex-girlfriend has gone missing for several weeks. He receives a panicked phone call from her, sees her one more time, and within 48 hours she ends up dead, leaving him to try to unravel the mystery, which leads him into his school’s subculture of dope-dealing and hilarious posing along with the full allotment of tough guys, fake tough guys, violence, and apple juice.
The film is characterized as “neo-noir,” although I’d stick with “hard-boiled” given Brendan’s character and the terse, quick dialogue through nearly all of the film. Brendan is quick with the ripostes, and a few other characters manage to match him quip for quip, like the character Laura, of the high class and uncertain motives, responding to him on the phone.
Laura: Who is this?
Brendan: I won’t waste your time. You don’t know me.
Laura: (slowly) I know everyone, and I have all the time in the world.
Brendan: Ah, the folly of youth.
The characters nearly all speak quickly – occasionally unintelligibly – and the pacing is brisk, while the dialogue has just enough slang to give it an altered-reality feel without overselling the noir feel. Johnson layered the plot with a red herring or two and even gave Brendan a brilliant sidekick, just called The Brain, complete with thick-lensed glasses (with hipster frames, as it turns out) and a machine-gun delivery.
The script is brilliant, but the performances elevated the movie to plus. One of the hardest things for a teenaged actor or actress to do is to play a teenaged character who’s supposed to act like an adult – it usually comes off as forced, often with unintentionally comic results. But Levitt sells his character quickly and easily; by the one-quarter mark, you’re no longer distracted by that age/speech discrepancy and are buying Brendan as a viable young adult, rather than a kid playing dress-up. Without that performance, the center of the movie wouldn’t hold.
Most of the other cast members filled their roles admirably with Brendan at the center; Meagan Wood, who seems to be better known for appearing in African-American sitcoms and bad horror films, stands out as one of two femmes fatales (and the much more convincing of the two) as a cold, manipulative actress tied up on the fringes of the central crime but who enjoys toying with Brendan when he comes for information. The other femme fatale is played by the adorable Nora Zehetner, who simply doesn’t fit her part, not in looks (it would be fair to say that a doe was Nora Zehetner-eyed) or in articulation (the precise, upper-class speech of her character doesn’t fit her actions or motivations). That’s not on Zehetner, but on whoever made the casting decision. You wouldn’t cast me as Tug for similar reasons – I could be the greatest actor since Olivier but I couldn’t sell you on a character I’m not physically built to play.
For someone like me, infatuated with the style and tension of hard-boiled literature, Brick is sublime – a brilliant adaptation of a great story Dashiell Hammett forgot to write. It’s the rare movie I’d actually want to watch again.
Next up: In Bruges.