How far can a movie coast on style? If Rian Johnson’s snaky-plotted, murky, hyperarticulate “Brick” is any indication, the answer is “far, very, very far.” There’s not one element left uncalibrated, from the score (equal parts “Chinatown” and “Casablanca”) to the colors (all gray-tinged) to the dialogue (make friends with words like “yegg” and “reef worm”). Shot for shot, “Brick” looks and sounds so unassailably cool that if the characters don’t hold water, well, we barely notice.
Certainly modern movie characters who spout off lines like “the ape blows or I clam” or “I’m not heeling you to hook you” are jarring enough, but Johnson goes one better by setting “Brick” in a SoCal high school that exists as its own society (like “Heathers” sans smartened-up Valley Girl affectations). There are caste systems to be maintained, mores to be observed; there is protocol to be followed. And save for the vice principal (Richard Roundtree) and a mother or two, there are no adults in sight in this world, the students — all precocious enough to put those long-winded “Dawson’s Creek” mopers to shame — are free agents in this eerie, surreal blur of a world.
One of the amazing things about “Brick” is the way Johnson draws us in (granted, it takes a good 30 minutes, a discerning eye and a fair amount of patience) and coerces us into accepting this eerie world as reality. Panache can do that to a viewer. The young actors, particularly the versatile Joseph Gordon-Levitt, work hard to sell the concept: Brendan Frye (Gordon-Levitt), a high school pariah by choice, gets a panicked call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She’s in trouble, she says, and that’s all he gets before he finds her dead body near a sewer. Determined to help the only girl he ever loved, Brendan and his pal The Brain (Matt O’Leary) make like gumshoes. (When do they have time for class, you ask? Homework? Showers? Best not to ask too many logical questions.) Their sleuthing leads them to an underground drug ring headed by The Pin (Lukas Haas, scary in his supernatural calm), who never leaves his oafish, loose-cannon bodyguard Tugger (an explosive Noah Fleiss) far behind. Haas and Fleiss have the chops to turn their characters from harmless kooks — a pusher with a cane? — into men (albeit young ones) no one should want as enemies.
From here the complications flower. Also in the mix are Laura (Nora Zehetner), a pretty socialite who’s more conniving than she looks; Kara (Meagan Good), a wannabe femme-fatale; and Dode (Noah Segin), Kara’s flunky and a hopeless drug addict who knew Emily more intimately than he’ll admit. All have varying degrees of involvement in Emily’s mysterious death, but Johnson deserves credit for making their parts seem more intricate than a series of “aha!” moments. Although there is a lot of talking, there’s also a surprising amount of violence and one hell of a pedestrian-plays-chicken-with-a-car sequence. In all honesty “Brick” is such a complex film that it rewards multiple viewings (in this way it’s a fitting precursor to “The Brothers Bloom.”) The director demands that the audience do the work in unraveling the story; even though the characters provide explanations, we’re not sure we can trust them. And Johnson plots the movie in such a way that even though we see events happen, what we’ve seen only makes sense at the end … and maybe not even then.
So yes, the script, the dense plotting, the ripped-from-Raymond-Chandler dialogue — all require a willful suspension of disbelief to work, but once the surrender happens the full ambition of “Brick” crashes down. Stupefying, isn’t it, that a film this high-concept could keep us riveted until the bitter end? Gordon-Levitt shoulders much of this responsibility, and what a performance he gives. He’s always had chameleon-like talents; here he takes that to another level. Gordon-Levitt nails what few emotions the closed-down Brendan lets slip; he lets the character fill him up top to bottom, and he lends “Brick” what little (very little) emotional authenticity it has. With him doing the selling, there’s no choice but to buy in.