Iris Out

Tom Pilcher

If you’re expecting the dashing, indie-rock loving protagonist Joseph Gordon-Levitt played in 2009’s “(500) Days of Summer,” viewing Gordon-Levitt’s lesser-known 2005 gem “Brick” will be a shock to your system.
Don’t get me wrong, his two characters do share some similarities: “Brick” finds Gordon-Levitt playing Brendan Frye, a no-nonsense high-school loner with some faux-detective leanings whose girlfriend recently dumped him, a role not too far removed from the more cheerful but equally lonely Tom Hansen he plays in “(500) Days of Summer.”
All comparisons aside, “Brick” is worth seeing for much more than young Gordon-Levitt.
Operating on a shoestring budget, director Rian Johnson fuses the darkened, dangerous chiaroscuro-lit streets of 1940s and 1950s noir films with the seemingly incompatible world of a modern – give or take a few years – Southern California high school.
Throw in the terse, hard-boiled dialogue of Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler’s famous detective novels and an elaborate, violent high school drug ring, and “Brick” starts to take shape.
The film opens with a bang: Gordon-Levitt’s Frye crouches over the body of his ex-girlfriend Emily, who lies face down in a drainage ditch. A close-up of her forearm shows her hand trailing in the shallow current. With this eerie scene, Johnson sets the tone for the rest of the film’s improbable but highly entertaining narrative.
From there, the plot jumps back a few days to re-tell Emily’s disappearance and Frye’s decision to find her and help her. Like the noir heroes of the ’40s and ’50s, Frye is flawed, but his drive to save his ex from the trouble she’s locked herself into is genuine. His antisocial tendencies may have lost him Emily, there’s no doubt he does everything he can to help her.
All of the classic elements of film noir crop up throughout the film, but Johnson does more than pay homage with their inclusion. The fusion of the unlikely, modern setting with the classic noir elements mesh together in unexpected ways to tell a typical high school social drama concerned with problems way beyond the blackboards of homeroom English.
Admittedly, it’s surprising at first to hear baby-faced Gordon-Levitt rattle off lines like “Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head.” But once this surprise wears off, it’s easy to get swept up into the world of the Pin, the mysterious brick and an informant known simply as “The Brain.”
The vast, empty vistas of the single floor high school, the dramatic, expressive camera angles and the numerous femme fatales throughout give “Brick” some added gravity, aligning it with and simultaneously updating the darker, highly pessimistic noir films of the 1950s – see Orson Welles’ 1958 “Touch of Evil” for a great example of this style.
One of the most admirable aspects of “Brick” comes in Johnson’s awareness of what he’s doing. He knows that creating a dark neo-noir with baby-faced high schoolers as the main characters is an unlikely and potentially comedic collision, and every now and then when the plot gets too serious, he exploits the film’s potential for comedy.
For example, the Pin, the area’s drug overlord, lives in his mom’s basement, and at one point she literally offers Frye and the Pin some milk and cookies. In another scene, Frye and the Pin sit on the beach at sunset, where the Pin asks if Frye has read “the Hobbit books.” He then continues, “His descriptions of things are really good. He makes you wanna be there.”
By alternating the heaviness of the rest of the plot with lighter moments like the aforementioned, Johnson creates a gripping, unique film with more layers than initially apparent.
If you puzzled over who took “The Maltese Falcon,” claimed “Double Indemnity” and searched for “Laura,” then you’ll enjoy “Brick.” And really, you’ll probably enjoy it anyway, even if you didn’t know what that last sentence meant.