A pure detective piece, Rian Johnson’s 2005 directorial debut Brick wears its smarts with a scoff that’s so far outside pop it’s all the way in.  Styled after film noir, but also after comics, the movie takes young people seriously, as, true to genre, they all find themselves sooner or later caught up in a plot that involves every section of their community, and everyone’s world gets turned inside out.  This director has a great sense of how moviegoers take an active part in creating the stories that unfold onscreen, and it’s a pleasure to watch his work.

Once upon a time, Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a small-time drug dealer, cut a plea with Assistant Vice Principal Gary Trueman (Richard Roundtree) and sold out his partner Jerr, who his girlfriend Emily Kostich (Emilie de Ravin) had been having an affair with.  Then, in the three months during and after her breakup with Brendan, Emily had liaisons with Tug (Noah Fleiss) and Dode (Noah Segan), struggled to gain entry into a clique of teens from wealthy families by way of a mutual smack connection, may have become addicted, and may also have gotten pregnant.  Meanwhile, a rich kid named Laura Dannon (Nora Zehetner) gained Emily’s trust; and when Laura stole a brick of heroin from The Pin (Lukas Haas), and kept half – but before replacing it cut the junk back to size with chemicals that put one of The Pin’s crewmembers into a coma – she framed Emily for stealing the product, set her up, and betrayed her.  Emily took cover with Dode, but The Pin convinced her to meet with him. The Pin sent Tug to the rendezvous instead, and on Laura’s advice, Emily told Tug the baby was his. Tug became enraged and killed her.

That all happens off the screen.  The film opens in medias res on Brendan finding Emily’s body, then doubles back to the events of the two previous days, as he gets involved when Emily calls him, catches up with the first shots and goes on from there.  Stalking around with hair over his eyes, wearing eyeglasses and an outsized duffel coat, Brendan casts off the straight life and enlists the assistance of his friend Brain (Matt O’Leary), as he searches for Emily, then for those who brought about her death, getting further and further into the underworlds of the school and town, finally forming ties with all the players in a major deal, connected enough on every side to referee the truce that goes bad in Brick’s concluding scenes because of a double-agent he can’t influence.  

The town of San Clemente, in Orange County, California, sets the scene for this morality play, with its oceanside suburban grit, faux wood paneling, shag carpets, low ceilings, modular architecture landscaped with eucalyptus and cypress trees, mall loading docks, hill streets banked with chaparral, parking lots, payphones, high school football fields covered in seagulls, and clouds taking on color at twilight, all against the backdrop of an empty sky and the distant stark Pacific.  It’s within this atmosphere that Brendan arrives at Trueman’s office once again, prepared to sacrifice himself, now no longer helping or finding or even avenging Emily, just trying to get some justice for her. In their campy deadpan lines, there’s a stark contrast between the high mannerism of the hardboiled dialogue and the deep, barely restrained emotion:

TRUEMAN:  You’ve helped this office out before.

BRENDAN:  No. I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.

TRUEMAN:  Fine. Very well put.

BRENDAN:  Accelerated English.  Mrs. Kasprzyk.

TRUEMAN:  Tough teacher.

BRENDAN:  Tough, but fair.

TRUEMAN:  Okay. We know you’re clean.  And you’ve …. Despite your motives, you’ve always been an asset to this office.  And you’re a good kid. I want to run some names past you. Hold it, we’re not done here.

BRENDAN:  I was done here three months ago.  I told you then I’d give you Jerr, and that was that.  I’m not your inside line, and I’m not your boy.

TRUEMAN:  That’s not very …

BRENDAN:  You know what I’m in if the wrong yegg saw me pulled in here?

TRUEMAN:  What are you in?

BRENDAN:  No. And no more of these informal chats.  If you’ve got a discipline issue with me, write me up or suspend me, and I’ll see you at the parent conference.

TRUEMAN:  Hold on! I could write you up for talking back to a VP and for looking at me in that threatening way.  I would exercise a little tact, Mr. Frye. You can’t pull a stunt like that unless there’s something I need you for.  So is there?

BRENDAN:  Maybe.

TRUEMAN:  Maybe. Maybe there’s something you need from me.

BRENDAN:  Maybe. All right, I need you off my back completely for the next few weeks.  There might be some heat soon.

TRUEMAN:  If it’s something I can’t cover, I won’t go to bat for you.

BRENDAN:  If I get caught like that, it’s curtains anyway.  I couldn’t have brass cutting me favors in public.  I’m just letting you know now, so you don’t come kicking in my homeroom door once trouble starts.

TRUEMAN:  Okay. Okay, here’s what I can do.  I won’t pin you for anything you aren’t caught at.  But if anything comes up with your prints on it, I can’t help you.  Also, if I get to the bottom of whatever this is, and it gets too hot, and you don’t deliver, VP’s gonna need someone to turn over, police-wise.  And I’ll have you. There better be some meat at the end of this, like you say. Or at least a fall guy. Or you’re it.

A single conversation conveys how the stakes have suddenly gotten very high for our protagonist (the only other adult in Brick is The Pin’s mom, who shows up to serve apple juice and cookies).  No turning back for Brendan now: he has become as much a part of the game as any other player.

As the dot-com bust fizzled out and the financial crisis of the new millennium’s first decade loomed, Brick portrayed an American adolescence that had already learned how to destroy any innocence remaining in its midst, but that still couldn’t wipe away the traces its actions left behind.  The film’s long shots, slow zoom-outs, midtempo pans across locations, and low camera angles bespeak an unfashionable mode of moviemaking, an animalism of characterization, and a skeptical tone that don’t flatter simplistic conceptions of human nature.  Brick shows how a stubborn but mistaken loner might react to the general tragedy in a dignified way.

First published in Adventure Amigos (2013)

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