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A Flawed, But Auspicious Debut

The buzz on Rian Johnson's Brick began last year when his film received the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. With an eyebrow-raising conceit that combines noir/detective fiction with a high school setting, to call Brick "original" might be an understatement, but what about the execution? Does Johnson, his cast, and technical crew pull it off? The short answer: yes, but with some reservations. While Johnson manages to pull off an admittedly audacious idea, there are one or two missteps, due mostly to his overreliance on the nearly impenetrable jargon of his characters that make motivations and plot points difficult to follow or understand.

First things first, though. Brick has everything you'd expect from noir/detective fiction: an investigator; Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); a brainy assistant called, appropriately enough, the Brain (Matt O'Leary); a reclusive crime boss with a physical infirmity, the Pin (Lucas Haas); the crime boss' muscle, Tugger (Noah Fleiss); a drug addict with loose lips, Dode (Noah Segan); a damsel in distress in Brendan's ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin); and two femme fatales in Kara (Meagan Good) and Laura (Nora Zehetner). With the exception of the twenty-something Pin, everyone else is either still in high school or high school age. And the characters speak their own version of hard-boiled slang, a combination that's part Dashiell Hammett, 50s and 80s lingo, and words of Johnson's own invention.

Noir fiction isn't noir unless the narrative includes flashbacks, all circling back to a central mystery or enigma that the central character feels compelled to solve, even if it means risking his own life in the process. And Brick is definitely noir (or, if you prefer, noirish), opening with Brendan apparently defeated, then rewinding two days to bring us up to speed. A typical high-school loner, Brendan eats lunch alone out back and converses occasionally with the Brain, another outsider. The plot proper kicks into gear when Brendan receives a note from his ex-girlfriend, Emily, asking him for a meeting. She's not there, but a phone booth is. It rings and a panic-stricken Emily babbles code words Brendan can't quite decipher. The phone goes dead and Emily disappears.

Brendan turns detective, gradually working his way up his high school's social ladder, testing other students for information and veracity, but trusting no one. Obtaining a private meeting with the reclusive Pin is only the first step in what turns into a conventional noir plot involving deceitful women (ok, teenagers), double- and triple-crosses, and brutal beatings that are the hallmarks of noir/detective fiction and film. As for the adults, there are only two to be exact -- assistant vice president, Gary Trueman (Richard Roundtree), and the Pin's mother. Brendan's parents, like everyone else's, are M.I.A. But what about Emily? Good question. Brick's opening scene gives her fate away, but if you haven't seen the trailer (which also gives away that key bit of information), it's better to stop there.

Despite setting his film in and around high school Johnson didn't hold back on the violence (far from it). Brendan gets into several fistfights, losing most of them, but never failing to lose his nerve. Johnson drew his inspiration from early 20th-century detective fiction, specifically Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon and, to a lesser extent, Red Harvest. Johnson also drew heavily from Hammett's recurring "Continental Op" character (featured in Red Harvest and many short stories), a stubborn, tough detective that became the archetype for the fictional detectives that followed. Johnson's first influence, though, was the Coen Brothers hyper-stylized neo-noir, Miller's Crossing (that, in turn, led Johnson back to Hammett).

Structurally, Brick is a pleasure to watch unfold (those noir conventions again) as the various conflicts and hidden agendas begin to reveal themselves. Visually, it's as much of a pleasure to watch as Johnson and his cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, work wonders with a modest budget. In Brendan's world, dusk and dawn are ever near (probably a function of filming at locations at off-peak hours) and the visual compositions are surprisingly polished as are the major set pieces involving cars, fistfights, and, of course, guns. And I shouldn't forget a cast headlined by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's proving himself the go-to (young) actor for indie films (he received kudos for his performance in Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin).

Brick isn't a perfect film, though. It drags in places, it's too exposition-heavy at times, and almost (I did say almost) fatally undermined by the near-impenetrable argot the characters speak (which can often make the plot convolutions difficult to follow). Whether a function of the impenetrable dialogue at key points, or underwritten characters, some of the plot turns fall into the less-than-credible category (e.g., the Pin's acceptance of Brendan's crew, a nasty confrontation between Brendan and Tugger that's resolved by Tugger's change of heart). Still, Johnson and Gordon-Levitt are talents on both sides of the camera that are worth watching.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars