October 18, 2007

Movies for Grown-Ups: Brick

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

Brick (2005)
Written and directed by Rian Johnson

It's been said many times now by lots of people in the film industry, that it's almost a miracle for a movie to get finished and released in the first place, much less be any good; that the process of making a full-length feature is just so complicated, involves so many steps, and can be ruined at any time during any of these steps. And indeed, film history seems to be littered with such examples, where almost all of the elements of the process come together except for one -- where the writing and acting might be great, for example, but the directing and editing a little off -- with this one element able to singlehandedly throw the entire project off-whack. For better or for worse, there are simply some personal visions for movies that simultaneously have the potential for greatness and awfulness, with many times you never knowing which you're getting until that person actually implements the vision they have; and again, this is merely the natural result of a movie being the sum of a whole lot of little parts, with there many times being no way to guess what the results will be until they're actually upon you.

Brick, the movie

This is certainly the case with the breakthrough 2005 sleeper hit Brick, based on a central premise that sounds ludicrous when first heard; it's a traditional film noir, deliberately written with pulp-style dialogue from the 1940s, but set at a contemporary high school among cellphone-sporting teens. Yeah, I know, it sounds ridiculous; and it's precisely because of that, of course, that it took writer and director Rian Johnson over six years to find the financing to get it actually made. But lo and behold, it did get made, and true to the specific vision Johnson had the entire time; and now that the movie exists, it's much clearer to see what Johnson was going for, that this is much more a brilliant reworking of the crime genre than a silly Bugsy Malone type gimmick. Under Johnson's talented minimalist hands, Brick is an extremely tight emotional thriller, one that in true noir form relies on attitude and silent gestures to convey much of the movie's depth; and, you know, thank God, because this exact same material in a different person's hands could turn into a trainwreck so fast it'd make your freaking head spin.

Brick, the movie

The smart decisions, in fact, start right with the casting of the main part; Brick's noir antihero Brendan is played by none other than Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a former child actor best known for the goofy '90s American sitcom Third Rock from the Sun. It is an unexpected choice for a noir protagonist, someone who I think a lot of people before this would claim didn't have the gravitas or chops to pull it off; but Gordon-Levitt actually makes that work to his advantage, creating a mope and loner who seems to be harmless at first, but the more you get to know the more you suspect might actually be one of them Jeffrey-Dahmer serial-killer types. As is the case with many noirs throughout history, Gordon-Levitt's Brendan is an Everyman who's had a lot of crap dumped on him over the course of his life, a quiet hanger-on at the edge of a suburban teenage drug scene, known for his bookish nature and for being able to take a punch better than just about anyone else.

Brick, the movie

In fact, Johnson has a lot of fun in Brick, taking all the well-known stereotypes of the noir genre and shoehorning them into a suburban American teenage environment; how the "washed-up athlete," traditionally a crooked boxer, is here the drug-taking captain of the football team, how the oblivious thugs the police are always portrayed as in noirs are represented here by the school's assistant vice principal. It's ingenious how thoroughly Johnson is able to transplant all the trappings of the genre into such a setting, although starts making a lot more sense after hearing him discuss the subject (like he does here, for example, in a Q&A session with Creative Screenwriting magazine); that noirs, after all, are primarily known for their insular, self-contained environments (just like high school), where small actions take on unusually large implications (just like high school), where ominous dealings take place in plain sight of an oblivious general population (just like high schoolers), where problems tend to be taken care of by the people involved, without bringing external parties into the matter (just like...yeah, just like high school). The world of Brick is a world where adults barely even exist, much less matter; and when they do exist, are mostly played for intentional laughs, such as the brilliant scene where the warring teens are suddenly forced to "play nice" while in the presence of the main heavy's clueless mother.

Brick, the movie

At the same time, though, it's not actually the noir elements of Brick that make it hold together as a film, and I'm surprised in fact that more critics haven't mentioned this; that the main thing holding together this movie is the extremely tight editing on display, along with other such crucial technical elements as cinematography and sound. The gimmicky aspect of this being a teen noir melodrama is all well and good, but is still ultimately a gimmick -- what makes this movie so profoundly "pop" is instead Johnson's mastery of the film medium itself, how like his artistic heroes he has trimmed even the most brief of superfluous moments from his movie, creating a true homage to such minimalist noir writers as Dashiell Hammett (who Johnson has admitted in interviews was a huge influence on Brick, including a first draft of the story that was a deliberate attempt at mimicking Hammett's prose style).

Brick, the movie

It's things like this, of course, that I'm referring to when I say that I shudder at the thought of this script in the wrong person's hands; that without the stunning visuals, the endless smart noir-translation tricks, the massive restraint shown by the actors to not place tongue in cheek when performing this dialogue, this movie would be just a godawful mess, a fabled art-school disaster that would make festival audiences bray with unintentional laughter. It's the ultimate irony, in fact, of film as a creative medium, a fact that I may never get used to; that it is these brilliant singular visions that inspire history's great breakout films (and the massive mainstream tail-wakes behind them), but by filmmaking's very nature it is almost impossible to maintain this brilliant singular vision all the way to the end of the process. It's a lot easier for a novelist, say, because the entire process is just so much more self-contained; a pen and paper is all that's needed, characters never show up for work hungover or bitch about their trailers, and to depict an exploding sun all one has to do is write the phrase, "And then the sun exploded."

Brick, the movie

A filmmaker has a thousand more things to worry about when it comes to a project, from budget concerns to union ones, to a roomful of frat boys who don't trust you with their ten million dollars (or hundred million, God forbid). That's why I happen to think it even more impressive when a movie like Brick emerges than a novel of the same nature, simply because there were so many more obstacles to overcome; as film lovers so disappointingly know by now, even a collection of the most brilliant artists on the planet can still sometimes produce crap, because of the very nature of big-budget artistic collaboration. Brick is an astounding movie, made all the more so because of all the challenges Johnson faced in getting it made; it is a film I highly recommend you see without delay, and Johnson a filmmaker I'm highly looking forward to seeing more from in the coming years.

Out of 10:
Writing: 9.2
Acting: 9.9
Directing: 9.8
Cinematography: 9.7
Overall: 9.7

Random notes:
--Brick was filmed in Johnson's actual hometown, and in fact mostly set at Johnson's actual old high school.

--The outfit the main villain (Lukas Haas) wears throughout the film was based explicitly on the one Jonathan Frid wore in the '60s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows.

--Johnson's cousin Nathan Johnson created the excellent soundtrack on display here; it was apparently all done through consumer software, with the Johnsons exchanging small film clips and finished sound files through the Apple instant-messengering system iChat.

Best viewed: With your dame and a pack of squares, while on the hoof from the bulls. Yeah, see?!

Read even more: Official site | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Next on my queue list: Oh ho, it's an exciting one -- 1965's weirdo minimalist science-fiction classic Alphaville, by French New Wave master Jean-Luc Godard. I have a feeling that I'll have a lot to say about this one.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 2:16 PM, October 18, 2007. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |