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We know high school can be murder; “Brick” illustrates that metaphor by staging a classic film noir there, conjuring the spirits of Bogie and the rest into teen bodies.   Perhaps the most cleverly conceived noir since Philip Marlowe woke up to face the 1970s in Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” this stylish debut feature from director/writer/editor Rian Johnson manages to sustain an interestingly contradictory tone.   On the one hand it’s witty and non-realist (after all, since when do modern teens speak and behave like characters out of Raymond Chandler?); on the other, it’s neither parody nor joke.   Johnson seems to have intuited that the film could only work if it’s not winking at us.   It asks of us a suspension of disbelief equal to that we would bring to, say, a musical.      

Thus the dark urban milieu of classic noir transmutes into a California high school.   When bespectacled Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers the murdered body of his missing ex-girlfriend, the young sleuth put his backside on the line to solve the crime.   Revolving around a stolen brick of heroin, the case propels him into the underground world of teen crime.   Brendan’s in the great Marlowe/Spade tradition: not really part of any clique, he’s a loner.   Sizing up situations and people with unerring instinct, he’s respected and trusted, even by those who’d like to off him, for his quickness on his feet and for being a straight shooter in a crooked world.    

The film is choc-a-bloc with signifiers and codes from teen culture, films, and vintage detective and gangster fiction.   It’s knowing about high school culture: when Brendan is informed that a classmate was spotted eating lunch at a table other than the usual clique’s, he recognizes this clue immediately as being of some moment.   There’re stylistic nods to Lynch, and the assistant vice principal is none other than Richard Roundtree, a.k.a. 70s black action hero Shaft.   There’s an interesting tension in the characters’ identities: they’re emblems at once of teen culture (“the brain”, “the jock”) and of mythic noir (“the femme fatale”).   I especially liked Megan Good as an amoral drama club girl who’s sporting a costume from a different musical every time we see her.  

Lucas Haas plays “the Pin”, boss of teen crime.   Hobbling with a cane, the Pin’s pained walk seems inimical to youth.   When his mom finds him and a few other boys in the kitchen, with kidnapped Brendan in tow, she cheerfully asks whether they wouldn’t like a nice glass of orange juice.   I love that she has no idea that her frail son presides over a crime ring from his little office in the basement.   Adults are almost entirely absent in the world of this film; when one appears it has this kind of comic effect.    

If “Brick” doesn’t hit the “Chinatown” height of pathos it aims for, there’s still plenty to admire in its swinging for the fences.   We want the language in noir to zip, zing, and sting, and it gets that.   Its labyrinthine plot is part of the fun of the genre, as everyone who’s ever gotten happily lost in “The Big Sleep” can attest.   And the actors play it utterly straight, putting their hearts into it.    

- Apr 26, 2006

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