"The Zero Effect Of Hard-Boiled High School Detective Homages"
SCREENED AT THE 2005 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: The hard-boiled private eye mystery was a product of its era, much like the western and the glitzy musical. Anything that’s good normally finds its way back into the lexicon, even if it’s just as kitsch. Somehow the aura of the old-fashioned crime mystery was usurped by serial killers and the third-act twist that many filmmakers start with to build a movie around. In Brick, writer/director Rian Johnson goes back to the old days when characters were rocks, dialogue was king and the plot demanded you pay attention to every last bit. And he does it all from the period where most of us were the least confident – high school.When Baz Luhrmann and Michael Almereyda transplanted the Shakespearean dialogue to the modern setting it came off as, mildly put, stupid. The poetry of the dialogue was lost in the absurdity of the modern setting, no matter how dry or fierce the actors tweaked it. Hyperrealistic “nobody talks like that” dialogue has been a staple of shows like Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek for years and its supporters appreciate it since they would prefer their characters sharp-witted and operatic then behave in soap opera generics.
Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his best performance to date) is in the Dashiell Hammett mold of loner tough guys who never shy away from trouble to get to the truth. He was in love once with Emily (Emilie DeRavin from TV’s Lost), but she left him and fell into the high society mix with the popular students where drugs didn’t take long to find her. Now she’s dead; a lifeless body left in the sewer. And Brendan wants to know why.
He’s got his own personal researcher, referred to as The Brain (Matt O’Leary), providing the ear-to-the-ground scoops he needs to connect-the-dots. The low-rent druggie, Dode (Noah Segan) is there to be leaned on when needed and Brendan soon finds himself navigating the inner circle of jocks and wealth-by-parental-association in search of the Sydney Greenstreet-esque character known only as The Pin (Lukas Haas).
The plot of Brick is almost as complicated as The Big Sleep to explain in just a few sentences. But no respected critic would delve so deep and do more than just tease the taste buds of the moviegoer like the femme fatale (Nora Zehetner, channeling Mary Astor in more ways than one) who pledges her cooperation to Brendan. The title holds its own mystery and the actors never break face with the material. Every few feet it may have been nice to greater acknowledge the smarter-than-thou behavior within its confines, but the longer the ride goes on the more that self-referential, attention-calling would have turned it into parody.Brick goes for it full-throat from the classic brutality and stubbornness of the mano-a-mano confrontations to the tragedies of lost love and reformity gone wrong. Rian Johnson has got the reins firmly in hand and knows when to hit the laugh meter (a terrific scene in the office of the principal, played by Richard “Shaft” Roundtree) and how to keep us in the game. A low-tech foot chase is a classic example of how a filmmaker can twist our focus with something as simplistic as amping up the footsteps to a Freshman film school-level and whirling it into a satisfying comeuppance. Brick should be this year’s Zero Effect. Here’s hoping that it isn’t ignored in a ditch somewhere, because I will launch my own crusade to wonder why.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Sundance Film Festival. For more in the 2005 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Chicago Film Festival For more in the 2005 Chicago Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2005 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2005 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Deep Focus Film Fest For more in the 2006 Deep Focus Film Fest series, click here.