Sunday, August 29, 2010

"Brick" (2005)

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner and Matt O'Leary
Written and directed by Rian Johnson

"Brick" is a fascinating experiment in filmmaking - to take the style and tropes of a hard-boiled detective story and transplant them into a suburban high school setting.  It's actually quite interesting how well this all works, even if it starts to fall apart a bit towards the end.  "Brick" constructs a world where world-weary detectives, shady informants, femme fatales, and thug enforcers all exist as teenagers, substituting dangerous cityscapes for the halls, parking lots and sports fields of high school.

Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, looking for all the world like my college roommate) is a loner, living in a self-imposed exile several months after he and his girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin of "LOST") split.  One day, Emily calls him, frantic, asking for help.  She mentions something about a bad brick, and then hangs up.  Soon after, Emily ends up dead, and Brendan vows to find the truth about who killed her and why.

What follows is an investigation full of twists and turns as Brendan turns high school cliques upside down searching for the truth.  Aided by his friend The Brain (Matt O'Leary), Brendan makes his way through swanky high-society parties led by the beautiful, but mysterious, Laura (Nora Zehetner), arrogant athletes led by Brad (Brian White) and the local drug kingpin, The Pin (Lukas Haas).  It seems Emily had many connections in many different circles, and not too many of them are keen on telling Brendan the real truth. 

Ultimately, finding the killer will be more dangerous than Brendan realized when he finds that Emily may have had something to do with a brick of heroin that has been cut with a dangerous chemical, landing one student in a coma.  With war looming between the Pin's gang and those led by his former enforcer, Tugg (Noah Fleiss), Brendan tries to keep things from spilling over and settle debts and grudges.

If there's one problem I had with "Brick," it's that as things get more violent and tense as the film drags on, the absence of any adult authority figures or police becomes more noticeable.  Through the entire film, Brendan tries to remain under their radar in order to complete his own investigation, but at times, this rings totally untrue.  The film is mostly successful, though, at making me forget that it's almost entirely unrealistic through the conviction of its performances and fine implementation of neo-noir style.  But in the end, it's not 100%, and that keeps "Brick" from being a real five-star film, as entertaining and original as it may be.

Still, "Brick" features a number of excellent performances to go along with its intriguing concept.  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a great actor, and I have to give him far more credit now as an adult than I could as a kid in "Third Rock from the Sun."  Far from his sitcom roots, he's quite capable of blending comedic performances as well as deadly-serious acting.  The other performers around him all do fine jobs, also.  The Pin is understated, ruling over his kingdom with confidence.  Tug is appropriately menacing, his temper easily flared.  Laura is sexy and intelligent, but we never quite get a grip on just whose side she's on.

"Brick" moves at a fairly good clip, moving from encounter to encounter as Brendan makes his way through the maze.  A lot of the hushed conversations can be a bit hard to hear; I often had to turn the volume up, but it was only a minor annoyance.  A couple of really solid chases and fights punctuate the proceedings, amping up the danger at just the right moments. 

Though the high school setting conceit unravels a bit towards the end, "Brick" is a fine film for first-time director Rian Johnson.  With its measured pacing, fine performances and great sense of menace, this neo-noir is mostly successful and highly entertaining.