Brick Opening shot: A young man squats next to a stream, his head in his hands. What is he looking at? The body of a young woman, lying half in the stream. Next we jump to 2 days before, to follow Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an intelligent, cynical high school student, self-exiled from the cliquish world of jocks, stoners, and socialites. He is stoically heart-broken 2 months after being dumped by his girlfriend Emily (Emilie DeRavin), who left him to pursue that world. A frightened phone call from the missing Emily asking for help and filled with incoherent references to a "brick" and "the pin" prompts Brendan to launch back into high school society. He does this in the movie detective style of Sam Spade ("The Maltese Falcon"), shaking things up with a relentless directness punctuated by well-timed acts of cunning. Once found, Emily recants and asks Brendan to forget everything she said. Of course, we know from the opening scene that things aren't going to go well for Emily, and by this point we also know that Brendan isn't likely to back off from anything.
After Emily's death, Brendan starts looking for answers in earnest, slicing through high school society and the underbelly of suburban California like a weedwacker. Much like the detectives played by Humphrey Bogart in "The Maltese Falcon" and "The Big Sleep" this battered tough-guy keeps shaking the tree until the answers he wants fall out. His search leads him to the rich femme fatale Laura Dannon (Nora Zehetner), an underworld kingpin (Lukas Haas), and a handful of assorted thugs in a completely amoral teenage world. Battered physically and emotionally, he maintains his cool while playing all sides against each other in an effort to achieve some justice for the girl he loved.
In "Brick," writer/director Rian Johnson pays homage in wonderful style to the classics of noir fiction. Setting the story in the world of high-schoolers allows him to make use of classic detective story characters without seeming redundant. We have a beautiful seductress with ambiguous motives, a dangerous vamp (played brilliantly by Meagan Good, which sounds like a porno name for some reason), a crime boss and his hired muscle, and even a Vice Principal who fills the role of the police captain. Of course, Brendan is the classic loner private eye, moving through a world of scum but never allowing the dirt to get under his skin.
Language is both the strength and weakness of "Brick." Johnson drew heavily from the fiction of Dashiell Hammet (creator of Sam Spade) when writing the film, and that spare, 1940's style permeates the dialog. Suffice to say that these kids do not talk like high-schoolers. That's fine, because a stylized manner of speech suits these extremely cool, stylized characters and sets the proper mood. On the other hand, while the story of "Brick" is not wildly original, it is an excellent, riveting piece of noir fiction which deserves to be appreciated on its own merits and not just in reference to old Bogart movies. The Bogartesque lingo is entertaining, but it occasionally distracts from the story. Also, the linguistic style may simply be confusing and off-putting to audiences not familiar with the older films on which it is based.
Interestingly, none of the principal cast members were familiar with the literary and film sources from which their characters were drawn. This is remarkable, because their characterizations are so dead on, and given without a trace of the self-conscious irony that so often passes for wit. Joe Gordon-Levitt in particular deserves to be a star after this performance. He appears in every scene of the film, channeling the best of Humphrey Bogart.
"Brick" won a special Jury Prize at Sundance, and my understanding is that it has, in fact, been picked up for distribution. I suspect that despite its quality, it may have difficulty finding an audience. I hope I am wrong, because it was by far the best film I have seen this year. 5 out of 5 stars.