August 21, 2006
Rian Johnson’s debut film Brick (2005) caused something of a minor sensation among critics and discerning cineastes earlier this year when it won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, the John Cassavetes Award for the best film production with a budget under $500,000. Brick re-imagines high school life through a 1940s film noir lens as Johnson populates his film with terse, fast-talking characters and all kinds of plot twists reminiscent of a Dashiell Hammett novel.
Brendan Frye (Gordon-Levitt) finds his ex-girlfriend Emily (De Ravin) in a culvert. How’d she get there and who killed her? The film flashes back a few days and sets up an intriguing cast of characters and the world that they inhabit. Brendan moves through a shadowy world looking for Emily, whom he learns, fell in with a bad crowd. He invites himself to an exclusive party hosted by rich girl Laura (Zehetner), a femme fatale type who dresses like she just walked out of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai (1947).
With the help of the Brain (O’Leary), the school’s smartest student (we know this by how quickly he solves the Rubik Cube), Brendan’s investigation leads him to question Dode (Segan), head of the school’s druggie clique and Emily’s current boyfriend. Brendan finds Emily and they have an argument but not before he pockets her notebook and uses it to solve her murder. Brendan finds outs that the Pin (Haas) is the local criminal mastermind who had some kind of connection to Emily. In order to get close to the Pin, Brendan picks fights with two of his known connections: the most popular athlete in the school and Tug (Fleiss), the Pin’s enforcer. Brendan ends up playing two sides of criminals against each other while also striking up a deal with the school’s assistant vice-principal (Roundtree).
Johnson focuses on tiny details captured in close-up shots, like a burning cigarette or lingering shots of people’s shoes or, most memorably, Emily’s dead hand resting in shallow water. Many of these visual cues are nods to the cinema of David Lynch, complete with a shot of a ceiling fan that evokes the surreal filmmaker’s short-lived T.V. show Twin Peaks. While characters tend to speak in the same cryptic fashion of a Lynch film, the snappy dialogue that flies fast and furious between characters is more akin to the way people speak in Howard Hawks films.
Much like the Coen brothers film Miller’s Crossing (1990), Brick adopts stylized noir slang but in this case, contrasts it with a contemporary look that works surprisingly well. Like Gabriel Byrne’s character in Miller’s Crossing, Brendan is a smart guy who is often shown thinking as he tries to stay two steps ahead of everyone else. He is someone who is able to figure out all the angles and play them to his advantage but in the process gets repeatedly beaten up (much like Byrne’s character).
Brick has the oddest, off-kilter rhythm as evident in the meeting between Brendan and the Pin. It starts off very cryptically as they size up each other and then brutally as Tug beats on Brendan for information and then semi-normally and even comically as Brendan is later treated to cereal and apple juice from the Pin’s mother.
Even though Brick references Lynch and the Coens, it still feels like an original work made by someone with a distinct vision. The cast is uniformly excellent and handles Johnson’s stylized prose perfectly. It’s a dense text that has to be delivered in a specific way for the movie to work the way it does. To his credit, Johnson makes some fascinating choices in how he frames scenes and uses unusual close-ups with a minimalist score that is atmospheric but not obvious about it. It’s a movie that constantly keeps us guessing, not knowing what to expect next but he displays enough confidence in his direction that we trust him to take us wherever he wants. Brick is an amazing debut film with an ingenuous premise and such a novel way of executing it that you find yourself immediately drawn into this world that Johnson has created.
There are eight deleted and extended scenes each introduced by Johnson. There is more footage of Laura’s party with the entire performance of “The Sun Whose Rays are all Ablaze” that she sings. Johnson took a page out of Hammett’s playbook and cut excess lines of dialogue in certain scenes that are restored in this section. It is nice to see this extra footage because his dialogue is so great to listen to.
“The Inside Track: Casting the Roles of Laura and Dode” features audition footage of Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan reading for their roles. They are both excellent and it is obvious why they got the roles.
Finally, there is an audio commentary by writer/director Rian Johnson, actors Noah Segan and Nora Zehetner, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen and costume designer Michele Posch. Johnson cites Miller’s Crossing as a big influence when he was in film school. He read an interview with the Coens where they mentioned Dashiell Hammett as an influence on their film and this got Johnson to read all of the man’s books. It was at that point that he got the idea to set a film noir in a high school setting to give this classic genre what he calls, “a different set of visual cues.” Johnson talks about how he started off with no connections in the film industry and that it took six to seven years of shopping around his “weird, little script” to various production companies before he finally got the chance to make his movie. Instead of having everyone talk over each other, Johnson interviews each person about their experiences making the movie. This is solid commentary track filled with lots of good observations and fascinating information on how this movie was made.