25 for 25 – Hard-Boiled Gumshoe

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Full Disclosure: If there is ever going to be a movie that makes me highly jealous, it’s Rian Johnson’s Brick. It’s not just the sort of movie I wish I wrote, it’s the sort of movie I wish I had made.

Which is more true than you think, since I spent a portion of my senior year in high school trying to re-adapt the script which I found online (and with Johnson’s knowledge and blessing) as a sort of therapeutic exercise and a chance to stretch out my filmmaking skills and while that never came to fruition or completion, the creative ideas that I came up with about the script are still so stuck to my mind that I usually picture them first when I think of Brick before I think of anything. Anyway, here we are today with Johnson directing the new Star Wars film and the most-acclaimed Breaking Bad episodes and me just kicking myself for never using that correspondence to try to work as an production assistant or something.

C’est la vie, because no matter what, once I actually watched the movie for the first time after scrapping the whole thing (I think it’d be around 2011 or 2012, half a decade after the film premiered), it ended up being a compelling, enjoyable work of neo-noir high school drama and the worst part of all is that it actually feels kind of effortless in Johnson’s strapped-cash lo-fi yet aesthetically interesting direction. Like TV shows like Veronica Mars are eager to showcase their detective yarns and while I haven’t watched Riverdale, I can’t possibly imagine that sort of movie not trying hard.

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Johnson’s film is relaxed and unassuming in a way neither of those two works could be, despite being no less heightened (maybe even more heightened) in its noir trappings than certainly Veronica Mars at least is. The very dialogue of the movie is not the sort of talk a high schooler goes through, all sharp and angry snaps with old-school hard-boiled crime novel slang, the kind that would make language feel dangerous back in prohibition era but now just feel dated in a very classical way. Which is very easy to do when your movie is essentially Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon.

This is not a secret Johnson hides or is even ashamed of. In interviews, he’d openly state The Coen brothers’ own pseudo-adaptation of Hammett’s works Miller’s Crossing as the biggest influence on Brick, Hammett’s book is the blueprint, no question. The character relationships, the dialogue, the plot structure, entire scenes are verbatim taken from the book and they just change phrases like “arrest me” or “administrative hearing” to “suspend me” or “parent-teacher conference” to fit the context.

In case, that Maltese Falcon slip doesn’t let loose the plot: Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt back when he was making interesting indie and pseudo-indie role choices and as a result giving the best and most challenging performances of his career) gets in contact from his long-estranged ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravine) where she sounds completely frightened and stressed, but when he tries to ask what her call is about, she uses phrases and terms that Brendan can’t make heads or tails of, though Em is not intending to be cryptic. Clearly, trouble is up and Brendan tries to get a pulse on it but before he gets half an idea, she’s killed. And now Brendan’s hanged up on trying to find out who put her on the spot to for that bullet, getting himself embroiled in the drug trade of the elusive Pin (Lukas Haas) and a femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner) who is so obviously tangled in this without Brendan being able to figure it out at first.

Now you can’t tell from that very small synopsis, but when you watch the movie, if you know your noir, you can map it out: Em is Miles Archer, Laura is Brigid O’Shaughnessey, there’s a missing brick of heroin that’s essentially the Falcon MacGuffin itself, the very self-aired Pin is Gutman, the hot-head enforcer Tug (Noah Fleiss) is the young gunsel by Gutman’s side, Em’s current druggie boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) gets slapped about enough he’d have to be Joel Cairo. But while Brick can’t hold a candle to John Huston’s masterpiece adaptation, Johnson really isn’t trying to.

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Brick uses Hammett’s book as a launchpad for having and eating its cake at the same time. Most high school movies, even the ones that are entirely generous to their characters’ viewpoints like the John Hughes works, they have a narrative context that high school is itself this little microcosm of behavior, that the characters are in their own world separated from reality. And Brick is no different, essentially establishing that from the very first hallway locker scene with a ring of the school and keeping that going in almost entirely setting itself at Johnson’s former high school in San Clemente, California and Richard Roundtree’s authoritative vice principle popping to remind us that the weight given to these situations are not really much once they leave school, let alone the way they talk barely jiving with high school lingo* in the early 2000s (I was still in middle school in the year of its 2005 Sundance premiere and was just a month away from going to high school when it got its 2006 US release). And yet they still have oh so much weight and part of it is just the hardened dignity the cast provides every single one of their roles (except Haas knowingly establishing the Pin as an absent-minded pathetic and disappointing figure from the moment he goes into a tangeant about bats and horses; it’s also not for nothing that the only parental figure we see is for the one character that’s obviously in his 20s compared to all the teenagers).

Cliques and gangs are just a staple of modern high school and have been since before I went to high school. It’s not something to scoff and pretend doesn’t happen and most importantly there is a murder at the very center of it of a very troubled girl (and that’s only the first murder; the body gets a boost by the finale). And while Johnson’s script cares very much about this matter as does Brendan (and visually gives it infectiously moody lo-fi shadows accented by his cousin Nathan’s score), potentially the most cold-souled person in the whole movie (Gordon-Levitt gives him a harsh jaded cynicism that is very unproportional for any teenager and easily explains why he’s always the most hated person in the room, but obviously it’s an attempt at Humphrey Bogart cool that also makes him fascinating and in control), it also establishes the lack of awareness on the school’s part, let alone the police. That’s possibly the most nihilistic approach you could ever provide for a high school movie, where there are no adults to care even if you disappear for a good week and you barely have enough time to sleep, let alone go to class.

Anyway, I’m making it sound dark and serious and I think that’s essential for explaining how Rian Johnson’s Brick made understand just how versatile noir is as a genre template for application, because Johnson’s that smart of a writer and that inspired as a director, but it’s also incredibly fun to watch somehow through this darkness. It’s one of the most deliberately funny non-comedies I’ve ever watched and I know that’s tough to believe but the way Johnson stages Gordon-Levitt beating information out of Segan is its own screwball comedy there, Meagan Good as the vampish ex Kara stands out as such an outrageous and dangerously sexy cartoon that you can’t help wishing she had more screentime, Brendan’s deflections of Roundtree like a Howard Hawks film, football jock Brad Bramish (Brian J. White) is a punching bag acting how every picked-on kid in high school must have imagined their big dumb quarterback bully (it also has to be said how both that character and Brendan are exaggerated caricatures of high school tropes and noir tropes and yet it’s obvious Brendan is cool to the movie but not to the crowd and Brad is cool to the crowd but not to the movie).

Rian Johnson wants you to fun with Brick more than he wants to find it dark and he’s capable of pulling it off without removing any what makes it a compulsive mystery. If that’s not a sure sign of his tonal skills and the ability of noir to at once darken and ridicule subjects within the same context (something he experimented with later on in the 2012 time travel noir Looper), then I don’t know what is.

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*The very moment I decided to can my version was when a collaborator during pre-production complained that “people don’t talk like this” and trashed the whole script. It was seriously discouraging to have a guy so thoroughly miss the point.

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