Brick evokes noir atmosphere but lacks cohesion

By Matt Johnston

My new goal in life is to form letters out of smoke, like they are in Brick’s advertising campaign and in the trailer. This replaces my previous life goal of pouring a drink from one cup to another without having any liquid dribble down the sides. After all, life is short (and getting shorter with each smoke-letter attempt), so it’s time to realign my priorities with their requisite coolness. The pouring trick has the advantage of being bar-friendly in this new age of smoking bans, but I doubt it would leave anywhere near as lasting an impression. What any of this has to do with Brick itself is beyond me, but what most of Brick has to do with Brick is also beyond me, so I think I might be headed in the right direction.

What a thoroughly odd movie this is. It’s not like anything I’ve seen before, and I didn’t quite like most of its parts. The whole is something to be reckoned with: a freight train of impossible style and imagination that demands my respect. But it’s built from bits that are never as engaging as they should be, and thus greatness eludes the picture.

Rian Johnson’s first feature-length effort supposedly takes place in a high school, but the influence of parents and teachers on the lives of the teenage characters is negligible. The setting is too dreamlike for such practicalities as classes and homework. One would think that a high school in which murder and drug dealing are commonplace would attract more attention, but in this world, the campus is a suburban stand-in for “mean streets,” and the actors, most of whom were born in the early 1980s, are essentially playing adults. The schoolyard milieu adds a surreal undertone to the film, lending itself to some pretty damn ironic humor. When people should be sent to jail, they wind up in the principal’s office. After a fight, an administrator asks a student, “So you didn’t know this boy and he just hit you?”

“He asked for my lunch money first,” replies the student. “Good thing I brown bagged it.”

Such dialogue is a real treat. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in the spotlight as Brendan Frye, deadpans as few could. It is tough to make a line like “I got all five senses and I slept last night, which puts me six up on you” roll off the tongue, but somehow he manages. Also good is, well, everyone in the cast. They understand how their voices ought to sound when they are saying something while revealing nothing. The word “coy” comes to mind. Special recognition goes to Emilie de Ravin as Brendan’s missing girlfriend Emily. She spends most of the movie dead, but somehow manages to leave an impression with her few moments on screen.

The cast is called upon to keep us satisfied with next to nothing. The screenplay is chock-full of invented terms that add a feeling of mystery, but they also induce a certain amount of head scratching. One poster for Brick features an incomplete glossary of terms used in the film. The point is not to understand but rather to feel as though the characters understand something that you are missing. That much is achieved. Even so, it isn’t terribly satisfying to enter an alien world with so few points of reference.

In many ways, this feels like an off-target Shakespeare adaptation. Some lines almost break into meter and everything is saturated with suggestions of hidden meanings. The assistant vice principal’s name, for instance, is Trueman. So, he must in some sense be a true man, right? Or maybe he isn’t, and his name is meant ironically. Or maybe no meaning is actually hidden, and he just happens to spell his name with an e. Having seen the movie, I’m no closer to answering that question. I suspect that such questions are meant to tantalize more than anything else. Does the term “double meaning” still apply when there is no initial meaning?

What we have here is a mystery that is all smoke and mirrors. The smoke is especially stylish and looks good in the mirrors, so I’m not complaining too much, but I would have liked to see the heat turned up. Brick needed to be more grounded, in order to provide satisfaction to the literalists in the audience who want explanations. Or, alternately, it needed to be more over the top, so that it could divert attention away from its essential silliness. Of course it doesn’t matter what actually happens to Emily or where Brendan goes next, but for Brick to work as well as it should, we need to feel like it matters. To the extent to which I liked the style, the actors, the eerie wind chime music, and the witty one-liners, I can recommend this as oddball modern noir. But to the extent to which I was looking to be enveloped in a seedy underworld the way I am by superior silly mysteries, I left disappointed.