What do you get when you cross Heathers with Chinatown? Brick, that’s what! The central conceit of Brick, winner of the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, is that it transplants film noir conventions into a high school setting. The most obvious result of this collision is the lingo. The characters here speak in an argot so thick, the screening pass comes with a little guide. In addition to the more obvious “shamus,” we have “reef worm” (referring to a stoner), “take a powder” (to slip away e.g., “Why’d you take a powder the other night?”), “scape” (a patsy to take the blame, abbreviation of “scapegoat”), “bulls” (cops), and “gum” (to mess things, up e.g., “Bulls would only gum it.”). Yet, don’t worry if you have trouble following the lines. You’ll be so busy appreciating the fine acting and cinematography, you’ll forget the linguistic incongruities and after a while, the setting of the film, a coastal Southern California town, will seem like vintage Raymond Chandler territory.
Our Phillip Marlowe here is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Third Rock From The Sun), a self imposed high school loner who is intent on locating his recently disappeared ex (Emilie de Ravin, Lost). Then she turns up dead and Brendan has to find out why. His quest leads him through teenage intrigues, schoolyard brawls and, ultimately, local drug kingpin Pin (Lukas Haas). Part of the delight of the journey we take with Brendan is our realizing how artfully writer/director Rian Johnson has drawn from hard boiled archetypes in creating his characters. These include femme fatale Kara, the diva in the high school drama, the gangster moll Laura and, of course, the authority figure (the assistant VP of the high school, played by Mr. Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree). Yet, all of them are totally in place within the high school ecosystem of cliques, low IQ sports jocks, outsiders, and it girls.
As with any film noir, dashes of humor prevent the proceedings from becoming too turgid and Brick is not above in poking fun at the absurdities of the world it has created. For example, in one scene, so called gangsters (in reality, kids in trenchcoats) who have gone to the mattresses, are served glasses of milk by the mother of one of the characters. Similarly, during heated negotiations in the basement of a house, one character announces to another that “it is time to go up to the real world.” In the next shot, we see both of them sitting in the kitchen of the house. One is munching cereal, the other is trying to look threatening over an oatmeal cookie.
Brick is an object lesson in creating a standout low-budget independent film. DP Steve Yedlin conjures up images worthy of a film ten times more expensive. The acting is solid throughout with many of the principals having put in long hours in the TV trenches. Ultimately though, it is the twisty plot and the language that elevates Brick into the rarefied heights of ’80s teen classic The Breakfast Club and the film noir masterpiece, Chinatown. There aren’t very many films that inspire comparisons to both! Unfortuantely, it is also the language that might also prove its biggest hindrance to general acceptance. Releasing in the US theaters later this spring, this paean to loners everywhere, like Donnie Darko, seems destined to find its real audience on DVD.
Cross-posted at DishumDishum. Have you dishumed today?