April, 2006, Mystery

Flaws don't necessarily ruin a movie, (that typically occurs when its creators lack the courage or talent to startle and surprise) so to describe this intriguing effort at putting the hard-boiled detective films of the 40's and 50's on a contemporary footing as "noteworthy but flawed" isn't meant to denigrate what newcomer Rian Johnson has accomplished. Working from his own script and with minimal financing, he's created a piece of 21st century film noir with a sure and knowing hand. Despite its often indecipherable dialogue, (the theater showing it here in New York passed out a dictionary of slang with my ticket) and a plot of often incomprehensible complexity, Brick bristles with visual spark and a worm's eye view of exurbia worthy of an appropriately jaded Hollywood veteran. Sure to be revered by a whole new generation of filmgoers, Brick heralds the arrival of a movie-maker whose next work I'm already eager to see. 

Just a few years out of film school, Johnson's chutzpah re-imagines tough-talking Bogart-style movies like Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep as a darker version of Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without A Cause, replacing the existential teenage angst of that film with the passive/aggressive modus operandi prized by today's hip-hop/punk/rave-oriented & sexually aware teenagers. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, (so memorable as the tortured victim of pedophilia in last year's Mysterious Skin) plays Brendan Frye, an exceptionally self-possessed student at an unnamed Southern California high school, (Brick was shot in San Clement) whose estranged girlfriend Emily winds up dead in a storm sewer. Using his goggle-eyed but brilliant geek friend "The Brain" as a sort of mobile command center, Brendan sets out to uncover what happened to his lost love-- and why. This requires peeling back successive layers of the town's teenage population, which contains lethal thugs in T-shirts, a crippled drug-lord who lives in the basement of his Mom's suburban home and enough sharp-eyed, generously endowed vixens to tempt any knight-errant. 

Borrowing liberally but deftly from the street-tough style of its ancestors in the time honored mode of Dashill Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Brendan and those around him speak in a staccato style so precisely mannered the audience needs a court reporter to get all the dialogue. But Johnson's smart enough to know that mere snatches of communication can serve a dual purpose; serving up enough information to keep the audience intrigued while also providing auditory confirmation that Brendan's search for the truth occurs in a world of figurative as well as literal half-whispered obscurity. 

Johnson doesn't have the kind of budget to work with here that permits the spectacular action sequences which accompany so many of the recent efforts in this genre, but he makes excellent use of his own visual style; Emily's dead hand creates a beautiful eddy in the storm sewer's tiny current, a hilly suburban community serves as backdrop for Brendan as he tails a suspect, a gangster's black Camero streaks from an empty parking lot only to roar back with increasing menace and the shadows in the drug dealer's basement den provide a presence as ominous as the man who dwells inside them. Telephone booths made a comeback here too, allowing Johnson's camera to perform some claustrophobic magic in this era of the mobile phone.

All that said, there's way too much plot here; verbal exposition substitutes for visual explanation too frequently, especially in the final scene when Brendan is forced to pull the muddled pieces of the storyline together. And the dialogue, while crisp, often drowns scenes where its terseness isn't really required; tough talk is great, but when delivered at the same level of intensity, 110 minutes of it is a bit much. 

The cast includes a number of fresh faces and two eerily familiar ones-Lukas Haas, (the silent Amish child in The Witness) and Richard Roundtree, the original Shaft. The former plays the crippled drug lord with a chilling sense of quiet malice while the latter does a nice turn as a high school vice-principal who regards his students as little more than troublesome pond scum. 

Thirty-three years ago, director Robert Altman deconstructed the private eye movie using Elliot Gould in the role of Philip Marlowe, the gumshoe Bogart made so memorable in The Big Sleep twenty seven years earlier. Johnson's paean to the genre isn't nearly as caustically knowing as Altman's; instead, it honors the mood and style of its predecessors with unexpected, if adoring vitality. Unapologetically catering to an under-30 audience, Brick isn't likely to appeal to those in geriatric set, but based on this outing, the director's core audience will soon propel Mr. Johnson, into the big leagues. 

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