Long before he took up the mantle of sci-fi prophet by providing the Star Wars franchise with its brightest new hope since the 70s, Rian Johnson made a bizarre little noir film for under $500,000. Starring a then mostly unknown young actor named Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Johnson built a classic hard-boiled detective story within the hollowed-out shell of the classic teen movie. The result is one of the most unique and stylish indie movies of the last ten years, and it just so happens to be called Brick.
The film finds experienced loner Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) accepting full-gumshoe status after a panicked phone call from his ex-girlfriend leads him deep into the troubling heart of his school’s drug gangs. For the most part, it’s a mystery tale, powered by the expected number of tremendous twists and a carefully assembled narrative delivered at an almost break-neck speed. Laced ever so tightly with tinges of black humour, Brick is very much a slice of classic noir for the modern generation; a love-letter to the genre in the same vein as the Coen Brothers’ 80s classic Blood Simple.
What gives Brick its real mark of quality however isn’t its whip-smart dialogue or tricky structure but in fact its incredibly precise attention to detail. A nerd through-and-through, Johnson delivers every frame with the sort of mindful consideration usually lost on low-budget indies like this one. By forcing the camera to remain far more patient than the speedy plotting often allows, Johnson creates some ludicrously beautiful shots and ensures that they all land heavily loaded with tension. Like the fractured pieces of an insanely gorgeous puzzle, Brick’s photography is the key to unlocking its greatest mysteries.
And believe it or not, the surprising quality doesn’t end there. For a self-funded film made on a tiny scale (compared to the majority of pictures in production), Johnson manages to find an incredibly devoted and well-rounded cast. Relative unknowns Noah Segan, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas (believe it or not, he was in Inception) and former Lost star Emilie de Ravin form a well-wound and splendidly subtle supporting cast that all seem to happily understand exactly what Johnson is aiming for. Each performance hits its mark exquisitely, and without ever over-shadowing the film’s main character focus: its central figure.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan is a masterful creation in himself. Possessing a brain crammed firmly with a whole host of Bogart-level one-liners, Brendan is Brick’s true maestro; a 90s high-school kid with a loose-cannon attitude who steers almost the entirety of the film’s tricky plot both steadily and confidently. It’s rare to stumble across a character that’s this well structured, and so for that alone Johnson deserves a whole heap of praise, especially considering Gordon-Levitt’s incredible career-trajectory in the years following Brick’s Sundance debut. After all, smart characters breed smart movies.
In fact, it seems as if the only thing Brick could ever be criticized for is that it can often come across as slightly too smart. The more Brendan darts around the school, infiltrating popular girl’s parties and top secret drama rehearsals, the more of the story’s actual content is lost on us. Although the wit and the charm of the plot’s big picture remain, a great deal of the film’s carefully placed details are easily missed, especially upon first viewing, meaning that experiencing the movie fully can actually be incredibly difficult.
One thing Brick can never be criticized for however is being one of the most brave and gloriously insightful film debuts in recent years, and one that quickly established Rian Johnson as one of the most talented new filmmakers around. Much of his patient photography and unique genre mash-ups can be seen in Johnson’s follow-up projects: The Brothers Bloom and most notably, Looper (again starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Here’s hoping it’ll continue even further into his next project: Star Wars Episode VIII. Expect a long wait.
Brick (2005), directed by Rian Johnson, is released on DVD in the UK by Studio Canal, Certificate 15.