Few styles are more distinctive than that of film noir. The disillusioned gumshoes, seductive femme fatales, dark alleyways and darker motives are instantly recognizable, particularly when shot in shadow at odd angles. At first, the idea of transposing film noir from the city underworld to the suburban high school seems little more than a clever conceit, a gimmick, but writer-director Rian Johnson makes it work in Brick.
The protagonist of Brick is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a disaffected teenager who eats his lunch alone in the empty drive behind his school. When his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emelie de Ravin) contacts him in a panic, making vague references to impending danger, he resolves to help her, and when she turns up dead in a lonely culvert, he resolves to find her killer. His investigation leads him to The Pin (Lukas Haas), the leader of the local drug ring; Tugger (Noah Fleiss), The Pin’s volatile enforcer; and Laura (Nora Zehetner), the coolly sympathetic chanteuse by their side.
Many elements of film noir lend themselves surprisingly well to a high school setting. Quirky teenage lingo easily suggests the nicknames and colloquialisms of Dashiell Hammett. Filmed in the right light, an empty football field can look just as bleak as a classic dark alleyway. A teenager’s hunch, hands thrust into his jacket pockets, recalls the beaten-down slouch of Sam Spade.
But beyond the note-perfect details, the clever homages to everything from The Maltese Falcon to Chinatown, the noirish mood lends true poignancy to Brick’s high school setting. The malaise of disaffection, cynicism and casual duplicity among adults is one thing; among teenagers, it becomes tragic. Johnson’s use of film noir highlights the alienation so many teenagers feel.
Despite that, Brick might still have been merely an exercise in style were it not for Gordon-Levitt’s nuanced performance as Brendan. Gordon-Levitt doesn’t shy away from the dark areas of Brendan’s character — in flashbacks, we see that Emily had good reasons for breaking up with him — but still manages to make the dogged young man sympathetic.
Brick also mines the noir style for jet-black humor. The unshakable equanimity of most noir characters is rather surreal when those characters are in their teens, so some — notably a sharp-tongued siren (a drama girl, naturally) — inspire dark laughs with their deadpan delivery. And in one of the best scenes in the movie, the school’s assistant vice principal, wonderfully played by Richard Roundtree, interrogates Brendan by barking what sounds like the cops’ lines from ’40s-era gangster movies. The spectacle of Roundtree playing “the man” with such verve is amusing in itself, and the smooth satire of classic cop dialogue heightens the effect to sublime hilarity.
The conclusion of Brick feels inevitable — one should never trust the women of film noir — but that very inevitability makes the emotional wallop all the stronger. What begins as simply a clever exercise in style ends as a stirring neo-noir gem.