Being a fan of classic films makes it difficult not to want to talk about contemporary movies that take more than a casual influence from screen gems of the past. Brick is one of those examples: a present-day murder mystery whose characters are nearly all high school students. The approach is not as juvenile as it might sound, however, as the relative age of our characters would be forgotten without the occasional reference to parents and class –neither of which are depicted.
The story is fast-moving, with an opening on our protagonist, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), stooped across a massive storm drain from the face-down body of a blonde girl. Flash back to two days prior and our story really starts. This girl, Emily (Emilie de Ravin), slips a note in Brendan’s locker asking him to rendezvous at an intersection at 12:30 p.m. There he goes and there he picks up the ringing pay phone. On the line a distraught Emily tries small talk but, pressed for the meaning of the call, begins to rattle on about a “bad brick”, “poor Frisco”, “Tugg” and “the Pin”. Her dialogue suggests to Brendan that Emily is nearby and the girl hurriedly ends the call when a black Mustang flies down the street. A cigarette is flicked from the car with a distinguishing arrow mark on the paper. This will be a clue not realized until much later.
From here Brendan flies into detective mode and immediately consults with The Brain (Matt O’Leary) looking for the skinny on the words in that conversation he did not understand. He also asks for info about Emily and who she’s been “eating lunch with” –a repeated reference to the characters’ social groups. Emily and Brendan once dated but she broke it off three months ago when she tried to take up with a group known as “the upper crust”. She also hung around at one point with the drama “vamp” who is also a Brendan ex and the modern day stand in for a prostitute/stripper/slut type. That is where Brendan takes his questions next.
Brendan manages a final meeting with Emily before her demise. He tracks her down after questioning –and pounding on– hash-head Dode (Noah Segan) who insists the girl is with him now. He follows the druggie and sees him hand Emily a slip of paper. Brendan will get his hands on this note after meeting with the distraught Emily who conveys she is in trouble but insists Brendan must let her go.
Through his interrogations, Brendan gets wind of the involvement of drugs and encounters the tempting Laura (Nora Zehetner). This member of the upper crust comes on to the sleuth, but he cannot trust her. After a series of fights with a football playing, drug buying member of the upper crust and a white trash thug named Tugg (Noah Fleiss), Brendan is finally delivered to The Pin (Lukas Haas), who is the 26-year-old head of the drug dealings in the area. Brendan manages to weasel his way out of a knee-breaking and into the The Pin’s circle in almost a consigliere-type role. Emily was involved directly with The Pin’s outfit and was connected with a brick of heroine that went missing. In the end, however, she was not killed because of the brick.
The plot of Brick is clearly convoluted as many detective stories of classic film could be. However, I spent my entire time watching this movie last night wracking my brain trying to decide what type of mystery the story emulates. In many ways, Brendan embodies the noir private detective who is approached by a distraught blonde who ends up dead. But unlike those stories, our protagonist has a history with the victim. This regular-guy-turned-sleuth approach is more in line with Hitchcockian plots that excluded police from the crime-solving. But Brendan seems to have a certain kind of case-solving skill that the everyman might lack. His story also seems similar to the reporter-as-detective movies that always result in the newspaperman getting in over his head in a case while on the hunt for a story. Brendan’s infiltration of the criminal gang –in this case with many mob-like aspects– brings yet another element of crime-solving to the fore. Lastly, his verbal wrap up of the story’s elements at the flick’s close harkens back to Nick Charles’ speciality.
I labored over trying to put Brick in one of the standard mystery categories, but perhaps it is just what it seems, an amalgamation of them all. Regardless, the story is mesmerizing. It is not without its comedic moments, however, particularly where The Pin is concerned. This mob leader has a club foot and walks with a cane while wearing a cape. He rides in the back of a furnished van complete with a 70s style table lamp. Best yet, however, is that he lives with his mother. The Pin, Tugg and Brendan are treated to cereal and orange juice at the kitchen table while the young adult’s business deals take place in a half-finished basement.
In addition to a wonderful story and fantastic acting, the movie is also very artistic in its cinematography. The occasional jump cut and plenty of below-waist shots create a visual masterpiece. The dialogue is also rife with creativity. The DVD even came with a booklet defining some of the slang used by the teens. When Brendan provides a particularly intelligent response to the school vice principal, he is complimented, leading to a discussion of a particular English teacher. The language can be difficult to follow at times, and at others might seem a bit pretentious, but it is pulled off swimmingly.
Brick was the first full-length movie by director and writer Rian Johnson, who just this summer put out is latest masterpiece, Looper. The genius has only these two and The Brothers Bloom to his feature film credit, with a couple television episodes in the meantime. His movies are released with quite a repose in between, but if that is what it takes to come up with such masterful movies, I’ll be content to wait.