When I first heard about Brick, a film noir set in a modern Californian high school, I assumed it would be somewhat like Cluesless that moved Jane Austen to the same setting in a light and frothy fashion. How wrong I was! But I was highly delighted to discover that Brick is no shallow pastiche, but a full throttle, hard as nails, modern noir.
The idea maybe a simple one - transposing the noir genre into a contemporary setting, but first time director and screenwriter Rian Johnson really runs with it, creating a powerful and complex film. Sure, it's bleak and downbeat but hell, this is a noir after all. His passion for the likes of Dashiell Hammett and all things hard-boiled really shines through, and his deft sense of plotting, dialogue and pacing show he has learnt well from the masters.
The plot follows Brendan (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who after recieving a call from a distressed ex-girlfriend, discovers her body dumped in a storm drain and sets out to uncover the truth. His journey takes him through the seedy underworld of the high school, meeting unsavory characters and femme fatales and, in true noir/hard-boiled fashion, getting seven shades of the proverbial kicked out of him on a regular basis - none of which will deter him from cracking the case.
Now it might seem like shearing noir from its trademark rain-washed streets, smoky bars and grimy allyways is a recipe for disaster. And indeed in the hands of a less talented director swapping the classic dark and seedy setting for sunny skies and ordinary Americana would be. However in Johnson's capable hands the endless sunshine becomes as bleak and atmospheric as the classic tropes of the genre . The brightness and wide open spaces underline the darkness of the story and at the same time reflected the burnt out emotions of the characters, the bleached out meanings of modern life and the banality of the evils in their world.
Another inspired choice is having the characters speak in classic noir style -
"I betcha you got every rat in town together and said show your hands if any of 'em actually seen the Pin, we'd get a crowd of full pockets.”
Again this shouldn't work, but it does. Beautifully. The rhythms of noir-speak somehow mirror the tweaked argot of high schoolers and sounds natural coming from the characters. Partly this is down to superb performances all round, but largely is to do with the sheer skill of that has gone into crafting the dialogue. In these days of jump cuts, frenetic editing and soundbite scripting, it's a real delight to have a film like Brick that is so deliberately and wonderfully verbose.
In short then, this movie is a real gem harking back to past classic while creating something fresh, new and uncompromising. What's more the complexities of the story line and the eloquence of the dialogue make this movie one that can be enjoyed many times over. Rian Johnson is a man to watch and I'm really looking forward to his next movie The Brothers Bloom,which is due out later this year.
JIM MOON, 16th January 2009