Brick (2005)

Brick first published by EyeforFilm, 11 May 2006

Film noir has cast its shadow over genres as wide-ranging as science fiction (Blade Runner), horror (Angel Heart), the war film (The Army In The Shadows) and even the documentary (The Thin Blue Line), while the classrooms, corridors and cafeterias of the high school flick have proved just as welcoming to other genres, opening their doors to science fiction (Donnie Darko), horror (The Faculty), political satire (Election), superhero antics (Sky High), as well as countless Shakespearean reimaginings (Clueless10 Things I Hate About You, O, She’s The Man). Yet Rian Johnson‘s accomplished debut feature Brick is the first film to bring these two most flexible of genres together, letting noir in through the school gates for a hardboiled lesson in the shady politics of teen rites-of-passage, and so perfect is the match, it leaves you wondering why nobody thought of it before.

Nimble-witted, able-fisted Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds the corpse of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) just two days after she had sent him a cryptic cry for help. Hoping to “get the straight” on what happened to her, and maybe to “break some deserving teeth,” too, Brendan reemerges from self-imposed isolation and, helped by his friend The Brain (Matt O’Leary), becomes the film’s wise-talking teen ‘tec, revisiting his old school haunts in search of clues. His inquiries lead him to manipulative drama queen Kara (Meagan Good), low-level dope dealer Dode (Noah Segan), moronic jock Brad Bramish (Brian White), mysterious society girl Laura (Nora Zehetner), as well as non-student The Pin (Lukas Haas) and his formidable muscle Tugger (Noah Fleiss), all connected by a labyrinthine plot involving stolen drugs, internecine gang wars and a secret far closer to Brendan’s own heart.

In the strange world of Brick, no one can be trusted, it is all too easy to fall in with the wrong crowd, sexual relations are a minefield and everyone is making a play to be on top. And so, while all the tropes of the teen movie are present and correct, they are also inflected with the unmistakable stylings of Dashiell Hammett, while the school’s cliques, cants and “class” politics are shown to be as amoral and impenetrable as any criminal netherworld dreamt up by Raymond Chandler.


Brendan’s investigation into the death of his old love exposes not only the playground’s dark underbelly, but also its previously hidden links to noir. Like Brendan and The Brain, or Tugger and The Pin, the two genres form an odd-couple partnership, whose differences complement each other to a T. Despite the grittiness of noir, or the familiarity of the schoolyard, each coming with their own heavily coded cants, neither genre has ever really borne much relation to anything like reality; but when Brick brings these varieties of film together, their stylised artificialities combine and compound into something altogether more otherworldly and surreal.

Johnson carries it off with great wit, creating a hybrid that is entirely genre-bound and yet manages to transcend all convention. On the one hand, the most popular femmes in the school have never been so fatale and the classroom has never seemed quite so, er, classy, while on the other, rarely have dreaded crimelords made plans while being served juice and cookies by their mother, or interrupted their disquisitions on the twistedness of life to express juvenile admiration for Tolkien novels (“His descriptions of things are really good – he makes you wanna be there”). At the same time, Johnson never slips into crass parody, but instead employs the obliquities and ambiguities of the noir frame to show just how lethally complicated an adolescent’s life can be, while presenting a plot with enough convoluted thrills to make the most hardboiled fans of the detective genre scratch their heads in bewilderment.

This is a sophisticated experiment in genre blurring and, although in end the film’s different pieces fit together seamlessly, you will want to watch it all over again just to see how. In short, Brick is an instant cult classic, heralding the arrival of a new filmmaker whose talents as writer and director are already fully cemented.

strap: Rian Johnson’s feature debut is a seamlessly constructed hybrid of high school and noir genres, instantly cementing its own status

Anton Bitel