Dec 19, 2009

BRICK (Written & Dir. Rian Johnson. 2005)

Every so often I’m going to do a write up on a movie you may have missed upon initial release. It’ll be the kind of movies that didn’t get 10 million to blow on advertising; in fact they didn’t get 10 million in total. Yes, we’re talking about the indie movie. Or anything else that appeals to me. But rest assured they won’t be new releases. Everything here you will be able to find on DVD, probably in the local bargain bin for less than the price of a bottle of the cheapest nastiest Scotch.
I guess there is something to thank Michael Bay for after all, while his “summer block buster” crap eats up shop shelf space, the good stuff gets moved to the bargain bin.

If you disagree with me, tell me why.

So first up, is this:

People of a certain age (i.e. me, who said duffer?) tend to stay away from “teen movies”, and for good reason, they are usually shallow sex fests catering to people too afraid or too short to reach to the top shelf of their local newsagent. I’m tall, I can reach easily. So it was with some trepidation that I viewed Brick (2005, Written & Dir. Rian Johnson) described by IMDB as: “A teenage loner pushes his way into the underworld of a high school crime ring to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend.” Not exactly Citizen Kane, and stinks of “teen-movie”.
Furthermore, when the writer’s previous efforts include penning “Evil Demon Golf ball from Hell!” things don’t look good.

However, this may well be the most interesting debut feature since Richard Kelly gave us the much imitated Donnie Darko (and if you haven’t watched Darko yet then stop reading this and go watch it NOW!) or Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs; though it has very little in common with either of those movies. Delve a little further into the piece and we find a canny eye for a shot, and some great scripting.

Brick is a mostly successful amalgamation of the teen drama and the Film Noir, so much so that the language of Noir not only permeates the film’s narrative but its visual aspect too, for those that care to look. In particular, the open spaces and chosen settings reminded me of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Once we accept the unusual setting as commonplace however, the film begins to shine.

I’m limited in what I can say because I don’t want to include spoilers for those that haven’t seen it yet. There is a death, an investigation, a bad guy, a henchman, another death, a tragic blonde, and a lot of heavy exposition at times.

The dark oppressive streets of Bogart’s era have been replaced with a faceless concrete school, which seems to be under a perpetual cloudy sky. It’s as if the blue is trying to break through but lacks the courage of conviction. There are blues skies later on, but they seem to begin at the very boundaries of the town limits. Colour is used sparingly.

Brick opens with shot of the main protagonist’s shoes, a recurring motif that gives an insight into the wearer’s persona, and social status. We are at the mouth of a storm drain, and just in front lies the body of a girl, with a thick blue bracelet. An intriguing opening scene, for sure. I won’t give away any twists, so don’t worry, this is in the first 3 minutes. The girl is the tragic Laura Palmer type. She is aware of her own impending downfall but is powerless, or perhaps unwilling, to prevent it.

Then it cuts, and we’re told it’s now 2 days earlier. Again we see the girl’s bracelet as she places a note in a locker, followed by the shoes, the same shoes we saw before, as the wearer enters the frame and opens the locker. The scene is set for what follows. Two days pass in twenty minutes, and we’re back at the storm drain. Then it begins to get really good. How? You’ll have to watch it.

The mostly young cast consists of Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Brendan Frye), you’ll remember him as the kid from Third Rock from The Sun but don’t let that put you off, he does a fine job as the hard-boiled seeker on the fringes of something sinister, and prepared to give it his all to get the answers he seeks.

Along the way he interacts with different social classes and cliques but always remains intrinsically on the fringes of them all. Bogart would be proud, (and probably give him a slap for being so concerned about the woman).

Lukas Haas, who I’d last saw as Ritchie in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, plays a central role, which is all I can really say about that to avoid spoilers. But he does it well; he’s a geek, but he’s a geek that commands respect; the most dangerous kind.

Nora Zehetner plays the big-eyed dangerous beauty. She’s pretty, and handles her lines well. We first she her dressed in red, which is a sign of danger for Brendan; it’s an overused method in cinema but here kept thankfully to a minimum.

The language is initially ostracizing, filled with dozens of buzzwords that I didn’t understand, and as a result I empathised with the main protagonist, Brendan, himself not totally clued in. My DVD was the single disc version and had no subtitles so I was forced to rewind on a few occasions to catch what was said before I could begin to decode it.

Brendan makes occasional trips to “Brain”, the school smart-guy. Brain acts as a go-between; he’s a guide to the language of the underworld for both Brendan and the viewer, and is inconspicuous enough to be able to keep an eye on people without drawing attention to himself. In truth, Brain is nothing more than a convenient plot device, but not so obvious that he’s rendered two dimensionally. He has his part to play and like the rest of the cast he does it very well. At one point he offers the advice: “Forget it, now. Go home. Sleep.” A sentiment that is echoed back at him later. Also, if you need a Rubik’s Cube solved in record time, he’s your man.

Once we’ve settled into the peculiar wording, the dialogue seems sharp and punchy like all the best Noirs. For example, Brendan says to the femme fatale: “If you were behind me I’d have to tie one eye up watching your hands. I can’t spare it.” And later someone (can’t say who) says: “You’re going to make me curious being so curious.” I could imagine that being said in a Bogey film easily. It reads a little forced, but when it’s spoken it’s effective.

The plot progression is well paced; as the story unfolds so too does our understanding of the nuances of the language, and of the characters. As Brendan delves further into the blossoming crime ring, trying to make his way to the “Pin” (Kingpin), the danger level is amped up for him, and consequently for those around him. He takes a few beatings along the way, but there is little room for unnecessary emotions and even less room for unwelcome ones. His goal is paramount.

Eventually the “Brick” of the title is explained, and while initially I saw it as being a McGuffin, it actually proves to be the catalyst for the spiralling downward fall that engulfs certain characters, and is instrumental in the ending. And a great ending it was too. Some shock revelations are played out, and things don’t turn out like I had imagined at all.

Special mention needs to be made of one of the few scenes to involve an adult. Brendan is summoned to the office of the “Vee-Pee” (Vice Principal) and the scene plays out like a Dirty Harry moment, with the adult representing the Chief of police and Brendan the renegade cop with an agenda that says to hell with your rules. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the Noir feel but is great fun regardless. A poster on the Vice’s wall states “Every expert was once a beginner,” which is an odd addition, I tried to tie it into the narrative but as the back-story of each character is relatively unexplored I was unable to.

Brick currently sits at the 489th spot of Empire magazine's list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Not bad for an elegant little indie that slipped under almost everyone’s radar upon release.

The film was awarded the “Special Jury Prize: Dramatic, for Originality of Vision”, at Sundance. It also picked up the “Citizen Kane Award for Best Directorial Revelation” and the “John Cassavetes Award for best film production with a budget under $500,000” from a few other places. And if you don’t know who John Cassavetes is then shame on you, go here for an education:

To his credit, after repeated studio refusal, The Director, Rian Johnson, obtained funding from friends and family and after successfully collecting together around $475,000 he made his movie, his way. The film was shot in his home town in a mere 20 days. He even employed his cousin, Nathan Johnson, to score the movie.

The music is well integrated, never coming across as obtrusive or unwarranted. A number of bizarre instruments seem to have been used, I heard sheet metal being scraped, and at one point I’m sure someone was playing a tune by running their finger along the rim of a glass of water. Elsewhere, it evokes a smoky bar room atmosphere, or a prohibition era Jazz club. It would be an interesting listen outside of the visuals, but with a film like this the chances of finding the soundtrack are virtually zero, if there even was one officially released.

It remains to be seen whether the Director will continue to merge genres as successfully in the future, or whether he will be consumed and spat out by the Hollywood system that initially refused him, and then embraced him once he proved himself.

If you like your movies without 30 foot robots and with a clever script then Brick is highly recommended.

**** out of 5.

1 comment:

cuckoo77 said...

excellent choice to explore as your first post here. :D

i never would have guessed you'd pick "Brick".

JGL is one of my favorite actors right now....i'd highly recommend "Mysterious Skin" as well.