Dir/scr. Rian Johnson.US. 2005.
Shot in 20 days with alow, low budget, Brick is an exciting debut from director-screenwriterRian Johnson. Having screened in American Dramatic Competition at Sundance, thefilm sold worldwide rights to Focus Features for nearly $3m and earned aSpecial Jury prize for originality of vision - and rightly so.
The premise of Brickis instantly appealing - a noir detective story set in high school - but unlikeother film-makers who have harnessed an iconic text for an adolescent milieu -whether that of Shakespeare or Austen or, as in this case, Dashiell Hammett -Johnson's ambitions reach far beyond the plot. The execution is unexpectedlyshrewd and intense.
This is a meticulouslywrought homage that takes itself seriously in all the right places, aconvincing and convincingly convoluted whodunit with characters who are at oncearchetypes of the genre and still recognisable as high school students. Johnsonforces the viewer to see his characters through the eyes of a high school peer,to re-experience adolescence - a time and place where cool rules and where youchoose to eat your lunch seems like a matter of life and death.
The trick for Focus'marketing team will be in convincing audiences to adjust to that point of view.Not that young people aren't smart enough to appreciate the wit and energy ofthe script but this isn't American Pie with a gumshoe theme. There's nosex, there's no gross-out humour.
The gamble lies in assuringyoung people that being taken seriously has its pleasures while convincingthose for whom high school is a well-forgotten memory that this isn't ateenagers' movie. Indeed, genre fans can spot references spanning 50 years ofcinema, from The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown.
Every great detective storyneeds a great detective and Johnson found him in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whoseexceptional work here and in Greg Araki's Mysterious Skin is sure tolead to bigger things. A rangy, world-weary character, his Brendan surveys theworld from behind John Lennon glasses and unkempt bangs.
When his ex-girlfriend tellshim she fears for her life, he instantly assumes she's looking for an angle.But when he finds her dead, he starts to look for the culprits and - true toform - ends up discovering some very unpleasant things about himself.
Johnson treads a difficulttonal line - while the film often satirises the genre, it is not a satire ofhigh school - and creates a surreal dramatic tension worthy of the CoenBrothers. The stock characters are here - the seen-it-all hero, the spoiledfemme fatale (Zehetner) who runs with the bad crowd, the meat-head heavy(Fleiss) who's too smart for his own good, the cane-wielding Mr Big known asThe Pin (Haas) - but the circumstances are adjusted to middle-class suburbanCalifornia. For example, after The Pin convenes a meeting in the rec room ofhis parents' home, his mother invites everyone upstairs for milk and cookies.The audience knows it's being toyed with but the exposition is irresistible.
But Johnson goes a stepbeyond the Coens, fashioning a peculiar vernacular for his characters thatborrows liberally from nearly every decade of the 20th century. Although someof the cast members are not up to the delivery - some lines that would fly offthe fast-lips of Bogart are lost to mumbling - the key players shine.
The atmospheric soundtrack -by UK-based Cinematic Underground - and Steve Yedlin's polished cinematographycomplete a package with a texture surpassing films of exponentially largerbudgets.
A grace note is the castingof Richard Roundtree (best known as the superfly black detective Shaft) as thepolice department heavy here re-modelled as a high school vice-principallooking to suspend students for disorderly behaviour. When the hero and thevice-principal butt heads, Brendan smiles contemptuously. "If you've gotdiscipline issues," he says, "book me and I'll see you at parent-teachernight".
Prodco: Bergman Lustig Prods
Int'l sales: Cinetic Media
W'wide dist: Focus Features
Exec prods: JohnsonCommunications, Norman Dreyfuss
Prods: Ram Bergman, Mark G Mathis
Cine: Steve Yedlin
Prod des: Jodie Tillen
Mus: Nathan Johnson
Main cast: Joseph Gordon-Levitt,Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O'Leary, Richard Roundtree