Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Brick

Brick (2005) resembles a Dashell Hammet or Raymond Chandler story set in high school. A hard-boiled neo-noir, the film is set in an upper-middle class high school of cliques, rich kids, athletes, nerds, and loners, and it explores the seedy, dangerous underbelly, a place where neither police nor educators nor parents can reach.

But this is not a gritty expose on the dangerous, reckless lives of the youth. It's a postured, stylized homage to the classic film noirs, neither realistic nor credible for any moment of its length, but in this genre, that's not a drawback. Film noir is about style and attitude, a feeling of corruption, isolation, and despair, a sense that the world is a cruel and hopeless place filled only with assorted lowlifes. Glamor, wealth, and happiness are illusions, covers pulled over a seedy underbelly of decay and perversion.

Our protagonist is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a student loner who will stop at nothing when his ex-girlfriend Emily comes to him for help and then winds up dead, face down in a storm sewer drain. That's not much of a surprise. The film opens with Brendan staring helplessly at her corpse and then flashes back for a bit before following his quest to find out who killed her, why, and who to take it out on.

Fans of film noir will recognize the figures he encounters on his search: a femme fatale, a drug lord, a brutish thug, a whacked-out druggie, an authority figure demanding answers, a well-connected informant, and silent goons. Brendan himself is something of a private detective, taking on a case for his personal reasons to find a buried truth, and in the process, he finds his own soul on the line. He's sharp, sardonic, and tough but wounded on the inside and haunted by his past, which we're told includes ratting out a friend and his breakup with Emily.

Brendan doesn't talk like any high schooler I've ever known (nor is he ever seen in class). When confronted by a group of druggies, he tells them, "I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you." When called into the office of the vice principal (Richard Roundtree), he sounds like a cop mouthing off at a superior: "No more of these informal chats! If you have a disciplinary issue with me, write me up or suspend me and I'll see you at the parent conference."

Just about everyone in the film talks in that elevated, stylized manner. Rich girl Laura (Nora Zehetner) cuts right to Brendan's heart when she tells him, why she wants to help him: "You think nobody sees you. Eating lunch behind the portables. Loving some girl like she's all there is, anywhere, to you. I've always seen you. Or maybe I liked Emily. Maybe I see what you're trying to do for her, trying to help her, and I don't know anybody who would do that for me." Even in their final scene together, on the football field, Brendan and Laura stand so close, and from the way she stands, tilts her heads, and speaks softly, she reminds me of Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai. Even her name reminds me of the eponymous Gene Tierney character and suits her: a female figure whose character and motivations you can't be sure of.

Another scene reminds me of the part in Miller's Crossing when Gabriel Byrne is led to the woods where the body of someone he was supposed to kill should be, and Byrne knows the guy ain't dead. Here, Brendan is taken to the sewer drain where he knows Emily's body is stashed, and if she's found, the group he's with will believe he killed her. 

Plot wise, I'm still confused by everything that occurs in Brick. Who did what and why is a bit jumbled, but that's not new to the genre either. As I said above, film noir is more atmosphere and feeling rather than narrative details, and writer/director Rian Johnson captures a sense of suburban alienation. Classic film noir used deep shadows and expressionistic lighting, but Brick is not that distorted. Much of the film takes place in gray daylight in empty hallways and street corners. In one scene, Brendan is attacked by a thug with a knife, and Johnson films the subsequent chase in long shots and long takes (without music) that show off the surroundings; it's not a pumped up action scene but a desperate flight, and Johnson's film grammar emphasizes how alone and vulnerable Brendan is. 

The one really expressionistic technique that stands out occurs when Brendan, beaten senseless a number of times by this point, lies in bed. As he looks up at a spinning ceiling fan, we see from his point of view as the fan seems motionless while the room itself is what appears to spin, showing just how physically and mentally off balance Brendan feels. There's also a scene where Brendan, in a dark basement, uses sunlight reflected off a mirror to find an important clue, and the scene is shot so we only clearly see what's directly in the light

Johnson also laces the film with dark, ironic humor. The Pin (Lukas Haas) is the biggest, baddest drug dealer in the film, and he presents himself in dark suits and hushed tones. Yet, he operates out of his mother's basement, and she cheerfully offers breakfast (cereal and apple juice) for her son's criminal associates. Whether she (the only parent we meet) knows what her son does is a question not asked. Brendan also regularly confronts an ex-girlfriend, Kara (Meagan Good), a theater girl who apparently keeps freshmen boys prostrated at her feet (hinting at some perverted, sexual dominance that also is a noir tradition). During her conversations with Brendan, she will suddenly tell someone to go run an errand, and the servant will stand up and leave, revealing he'd been there the whole time just below the frame.

Brick is sort of The Maltese Falcon for the Millennial Generation. The characters of classic film noir, made during the years of World War II and the start of the Cold War, found despair and nihilism by a rapidly changing world that seemed larger, darker, and irrational. Brick updates those archetypes and that style to a modern setting and finds the same alienation and cynicism. Maybe we should be worried the youth of America are growing up much quicker.

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