The new movie Brick bills itself simply as a “detective” movie, which in and of itself is not that interesting. Luckily, Brick, a low-budget independent movie, skips the black-and-white, men-in-fedoras nostalgia by way of a truly unique perspective: It’s set in a modern-day California high school.
Now when someone is “taking a powder” from “bulls” with “gates” because he “copped” some “jake,” it’s being uttered by a nerdy, lanky 17-year-old with glasses instead of a brooding man in a trenchcoat. It’s an effective, suspenseful experiment. I can’t say I loved the movie, because overall it’s a little cold, but I really enjoyed and respected it.
Writer-director Rian Johnson goes all the way with his admittedly gimmicky concept because he doesn’t just employ the twisting, turning plot points and claustrophobic atmosphere of his influences, he actually puts these cryptic words into the type of characters least likely to say them. It’s Dawson’s Creek meets The Maltese Falcon.
Sometimes it’s difficult to understand the vernacular because it’s being mumbled or spoken too quickly; sometimes, even if you do hear it clearly, you have no idea what they’re talking about (“yegs”? “Shamus”?). But if you stick with it, you can suspend your disbelief long enough to get really wrapped up in the story.
Brendan’s ex-girlfriend, Emily, is in trouble. A loner, Brendan doesn’t get involved in other people’s business, but Emily asked for his help while sobbing over the phone before disappearing altogether. As he tries to track down what happened to her, he gets involved with the football jock, the theater queen, the library nerd, the muscle-bound thug, the druggie burnout, and the clueless vice-principal.
The funny thing is, even with the hyper-dramatic plot points (Brendan’s chased by a knife-wielding thug and brought to a drug dealer in the trunk of a car), it still feels like high school. Trying to get invited to the coolest party, managing a Darwinian social environment while trying to actually go to classes or getting ready for the school play, parents oblivious to their children’s lives – it’s a strange layering of real and surreal. Even the neighborhood’s twenty-something drug kingpin — appropriately nicknamed The Pin — still lives in the basement of his parents’ place. After Brendan meets him, they adjourn to the kitchen where The Pin’s mother brings them milk and cookies.
A minor problem is that Brendan is somewhat of a cypher. Aloof and mysterious to his classmates, he also remains that way to the audience. We know he’s clever, tough (good Lord can the boy take a beating… and give one out, too) and truly cares for Emily (and thusly had his heart broken by her), but that’s about it. The script is so tightly focused on the story, nothing even remotely irrelevant gets in, such as, say, Brendan’s parents, whom we never see, or even his house or bedroom. We do care about him, but emphasizing his very teen-ness would have elevated the discrepancy between his age and his behavior even more. Luckily, as Brendan, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (from the sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun and last year’s Mysterious Skin) is talented and well-cast, letting us see through the armor teenagers are so good at erecting for themselves.
Oh, and, for the record, I would never take a powder from a bull with a gat because of jake, but I’m just a yeg who doesn’t dose to begin with.