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Brick (Focus Features, R)

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The plot is interesting, and both predictable and intriguing at the same time, but it is the film’s dark tone set against a California high school backdrop that sets it apart. None of the characters act like teenagers. They are much closer to the hardboiled characters from the golden age of black and white replete with their own dialect and jargon.

 

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Rian Johnson’s feature debut, Brick, combines a Scorsese-esque sense of visuals with a dialogue stylization straight out of a Mike Hammer novel. Brick centers on a high school full of players, drug dealers, and low rent Mafioso. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is sucked into this world of intrigue by his lost love Emily’s (Emilie de Ravin) death. Brendan spends the next two hours plotting, manipulating, and investigating various characters surrounding Emily’s life since she left him two months prior.

The plot is interesting, and both predictable and intriguing at the same time, but it is the film’s dark tone set against a California high school backdrop that sets it apart. None of the characters act like teenagers. They are much closer to the hardboiled characters from the golden age of black and white replete with their own dialect and jargon. Fast talking monologues, soliloquies, and voice-overs written for actors like Bogart, Cagney, and Bacall litter the film. Johnson couples this verbiage with an analysis of the pubescent caste system, slamming the two divergent cinematic staples, film-noir and teen movie, together and sifting the pieces through a sieve of Tarantino, Woo, and Leone. The result is visually stunning and ultimately watchable.

Johnson owes a great debt to previous visual masters, but his style is his own. Both dark and bursting with color, Johnson uses the frame to set the tone of the scene, rather than relaying a single mis-en-scene to dominate the movie. While there are many great elements to Brick it is Johnson’s use of the photography that really sets it apart from other independent films, even studio productions.

One of the challenges Brick must overcome is the lack of empathetic characters. Gordon-Levitt’s protagonist is charming, engaging, and at times riveting, but there is little to admire, even his quest to avenge his love’s death seems more like a self-destructive exercise in ego than an attempt to right a wrong.

Fortunately for Johnson he has found a young cast capable of holding the screen without ever being liked. Gordon-Levitt, formerly of TV’s Third Rock From the Sun, pulls off the formidable chore of playing an unlikable protagonist brilliantly. His Brendan sets the tone and holds the film together by adding multiple layers to Brendan’s single-mindedness. Nora Zehetner, Lucas Haas, and Matt O’Leary provide tremendous support in a true ensemble effort. Richard Roundtree, Brian J. White, and Meagan Goode supply memorable work in small, but important roles tying the film together nicely.

The style and liberal reworking of the English language, and the fact that there is not a single likable character, make the movie a hard sell and even fans will have to take time to settle in and find the groove Johnson is creating. While this film will never appeal to the masses it is a nice reward for the true cinephile up to the challenge.

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