When writing his review of Brick for Rolling Stone, Peter Travers stated that the film’s director, Rian Johnson, ‘risked ridicule’ by setting his neo-noir in a high school. Arguably, the bigger risk was trying to create a noir in the first place. Though Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and more recently Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, do fit into the genre, Brick not only uses noir conventions – the hard-boiled detective, the femme fatale – but also employs the wordy, cryptic dialogue. This shouldn’t work: teenagers, not even those in 2005, said things like “quit your yappin’ and fix me one” – but Johnson pulls it off.
Brick stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brandon, who we follow as he tries to unravel what happened to his ex-girlfriend. Just as a classic noir hard-boiled detective, Brandon is world-weary, smart and mostly emotionless. Brandon is also completely consumed by his investigation and often puts himself in danger. Though these are all characteristic of the hard-boiled hero, they do sit very well in the context of disenfranchised youths. Growing up where every previous generation has seemly ruined the world yet calls its youth lazy, and detached, Brandon’s worldview is very accessible and it does not feel like the noir elements of his personality have been wedged into an inappropriate environment.
It has been said that if you want to make money in film, you need to make genre films, and that if you want a few more conventions to play with, do a genre crossover. Though financial success was probably something Johnson hoped his film would have, he was much more determined to explore a genre he loves. His challenge was to take something very iconic, full of conventions and cliches, and make it new. In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes, Johnson justified the film’s high-school setting by clarifying that “Brick is not at all how high school actually was, but it’s probably closer to how high school felt.”
In communicating a feeling, Johnson has the scope to play with hyperbole, and style. Not only does that justify that every character speaks in the same cryptic, dry, Dashiell Hammett dialogue, it allows Johnson to steer his characters towards being caricatures. Drawing on the stereotypes from both noir and high school movies, Johnson not only draws parallels but also allows room for some interesting analysis.
The best example of this is Queen Bee/Femme Fatale, Laura (Nora Zehetner). Laura is one of the popular kids: she’s dating the a football player, throws fancy parties in her mansion, and manipulates the people around her. This, combined with her femme fatale qualities of being clever, two-faced, and sexual, leads to events playing out without her physical presence, but not without her influence. The two archetypes combine extremely well, to the point where you start to wonder if that Queen Bee at your school might have been a sociopath-in-training.
Though there is a perception that young adults have a lot of freedom, Brick communicates the finite and closed feeling of being a teenager. Being filmed in colour and mostly ignoring the noir convention of low-lighting, Brick is full of open space; hardly a cue for oppression. That said, it is often very quiet, like nothing is happening; the characters don’t talk loudly, nor do they laugh; the time doesn’t feel like it’s passing – just as high school felt for some of us.
Additionally, the colours in the film are washed-out: light blues, greys, and white dominate the film, complementing the muted tone set by the soundscape. However, the film does have an atmospheric score in places, created by The Cinematic Underground. The sounds are shivery and delicate – it feels like glass, in a way – it’s brittle but clear, and cold. The score does not further the aforementioned muted tone but rather heightens the film’s more emotional moments, expressing a sadness that the characters don’t.
It is this lack of emotion that really shows where the line is drawn between the film’s two genres; teenage hormones tend to lend themselves to the whole spectrum of emotions. What teen film is complete without an emotional breakdown, a shouting match with a parent, or a heartfelt speech about how “each one of us is a brain, and an athlete”? That isn’t to say no one loses their cool in Brick – there is definitely crying and shouting – but in a way that is in tune with noir and the situations characters are faced with.
These situations wander from one to another, not without purpose, but without a sense of real urgency. Though particular scenes have tension, the stakes do not feel especially high, because Brandon doesn’t appear especially worried whether he is alive at the end of his investigation. This is surprising for a crime story, but not especially for a noir. Noir seems to respect the messiness of crime; the stories are not neat or decodable like Agatha Christie’s. Brandon is connecting the dots while the bloodstain spreads, much like Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. And this lack of structure, lack of the satisfying three-act, also keeps Brick in tune with the noir feel of ambiguity and moral grey areas.
Brick is a well-crafted and impressive film debut that set Rian Johnson up for making The Brothers Bloom, Looper, and the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VIII. Ten years since its release, Brick is still engaging, and raw. Though the golden age of noir has long since past, films like Brick not only show the steady popularity of the genre, but also its relevance in a more modern setting.