Review: “Brick” (2005)

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.

Grade: A-

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12 Responses

  1. I really liked this movie, and I agree with your assessment for the most part. I did not find it too difficult to suspend my disbelief because it was pretty clear from the moment he finds Em’s body that we are in a noir tale, though I must admit I was a little thrown by the whole high school setting. It would not have been so jarring if they had been in college, but yeah the H.S. stuff, at first anyway, is a little hinky.
    I thought Lukas Haas was amazing in his role as “The Pin.” For a slender mid twenties man with a cane he sure is menacing, the threat of violence looming over him at all times. Whenever he is in the room the tension level skyrockets, and I think that is because of the quiet and calm demeanor Haas brings to the role.

    • There’s something to be said for quiet villains; they can be twice as scary as the ones who talk all the time.

  2. I saw it at the cinema and really enjoyed it but haven’t seen it again since. You make me want to check it out again.

    • Takes some time to find the rhythm, but once you do it works very well. The characters aren’t terribly realistic, but I think that’s the whole point.

  3. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    I saw this for the first time last summer at the suggestion of one of my best friends and couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it before. I fell headlong for the device of setting a noir story against the high school backdrop, and loved every minute of it.

    I could recommend it just to hear the line Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin. But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said “Show your hands” if any of them’ve actually seen The Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets

    Great choice!!!

    • My favorite line was (and is): “I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.” B-e-a-utiful.

      “Brick” is definitely a must-watch for noir fans who think nothing new can be brought to the genre.

  4. Hello, Debbie Downer here.

    I didn’t get the praise that have showered upon this movie. I thought that the movie was SO boring. The motivations of the characters were suspects, especially with JGL’s character finding the girl’s body.

    The movie was like Chinese water torture to me. Rian Johnson’s follow-up, “The Brothers Bloom.” I loved it.

    • “Chinese water torture” … I like that. Be sure to use that phrase in the next review you write of something you really hate!

      Certainly I would agree that “The Brothers Bloom” was a bit brighter in tone and more assured. At first I kind of hated “Brick” and thought it was too Artsy-Fartsy (which, well, it is), but then it grew on me. Still, I’m gonna say that Rian Johnson might be an, um, acquired taste.

      • I should have said that to “The Lovely Bones”, but I didn’t.

        Rian Johnson is an acquired taste The Coen Bros or Lars von Trier.

  5. I loved this one. Really made me look at JG-L differently.

    I never thought of it in comparison to “Heathers” but I see it now.

    • Another great JG-L pick: “Mysterious Skin.” He just kills in that one. And “Manic.” Oh, what am I saying? This guy is good in everything.

  6. [...] Original Screenplay / “The Brothers Bloom” — Rian Johnson is the man who gave us “Brick,” that outrageously stylish mix of gumshoe talk and teen hormones. And now this, a wildly twisty [...]

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