Thursday, June 8, 2006
In the low-budget yet endlessly stylish neo-noir "Brick," the familiar posture of disaffected youth manifests itself in the most bizarre way. The problems of high school cliques are not new, and like any generation, the kids of bleak and sunny San Clemente, California have developed their own distinctive slang. It just happens to be delivered like the fast-talking, super-cool detectives of Hollywood past.
While Humphrey Bogart and the lowlifes that peppered hard-boiled masterpieces like "The Maltese Falcon" always seemed one small step away from disaster, the high schoolers in "Brick" also seem precariously balanced on a ledge. Since when did the real-life teenage problems of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" become so outdated that they are so easily replaced by noir stereotypes like dumb goons with guns and knivving femme fatales?
In "Brick," the kids' need for acceptance is elevated to life-and-death situations, thanks to a pervasive and violent drug subculture. On the surface, this conceit could overshadow the film, but writer/director Rian Johnson's script and execution are as clever as his big idea. He keeps the characters in check throughout. At first, it seems an unusual juxtaposition of seemingly incompatible styles, but in context, the exaggerated mannerisms and dialogue become downright believable.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt is magnetic as Brendan, a rumpled loner whose mounting confidence just barely matches his yearning to find ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), after he receives a frantic phone call from her. Shot from behind, Brendan's hunched-over figure, hands planted firmly in his coat pockets, becomes an iconic image that grows in stature with each passing double-cross. Johnson re-invents the tough-guy notion by relying on scenes like this as a modern counterpoint for the sharply-dressed Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe of yesteryear.
Like those famous hard-asses, Brendan is a stubborn fool who is constantly getting a beatdown for sticking his nose where it doesn't belong. Impressively, Gordon-Levitt shows it in more outward ways than mere cuts and bruises, as his entire body starts shaking with pain towards the tense ending of the film. His motive is clear, but like any byzantine noir plot, he is just one step ahead of the game and about three steps ahead of the audience. The Coen brothers know as well as anybody that it's all about the window dressing and less about the veracity of the plot. Brendan is a complement to the scheming and lucky protagonist of "Miller's Crossing," while the story mines the same rambling confusion of "The Big Lebowski."
When Brendan travels to the house of the local high school drug kingpin, he's led downstairs to a wood-paneled rec room where "dopers" shadow the hallway just outside the closed door, staring at their feet. Inside the starkly-decorated room is The Pin (Lukas Haas), a figure so impressive that, despite his young age, he walks with a gold-handled cane and wears a cape. Brendan must prove his mettle, and infiltrates the organization to find out more clues.
Along the way, he recieves valuable information from another bespectacled outsider named Brain, is hassled by back alley drug addict Dode, and finds that popular and attractive schemer Laura is suddenly attracted to him. Some of the young actors seem a bit tripped up on the dialogue sometimes, but Gordon-Levitt especially sells his role with unusual poise.
Only two adults are seen in the entire movie, but to startling and funny effect. Richard Roundtree (the original "Shaft") pops up as a vice principal who pumps Brendan for the inside skinny on school goings-on, and the two trade weight back in forth in a very funny scene that nimbly upends the normal high school power structure. In addition, after an uneasy truce is called at The Pin's house, the druglord invites Brendan upstairs to the kitchen, where an over-attentive Mom is pouring orange juice for everybody.
Despite its low budget, "Brick" has striking visuals as well. The run-down buildings and ordinary look of the suburbs are shot with widescreen aplomb, making the most out of locations that could have had little or no effect. Steve Yedlin's cinematography, rife with color and close-ups, creates its own menace, steering away from the hard shadows on the wall that characterize so many film noirs. While it looks to the past for inspiration, "Brick" is very much a post-modern film of today.