Brick: Noir Goes to High School

Posted: Sarp Esin Date: 2013-11-15 08:51

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Before “Looper” brought the Rian Johnson/Joseph Gordon-Levitt power play unto display, there was something else that won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at Sundance 2005.  In making this film, Johnson had forbidden Gordon-Levitt from ever watching anything with Humphrey Bogart as the lead, because he had to avoid using him as a reference for his performance.

Based on Rian Johnson’s novella and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss, Matt O’Leary, Emilie de Ravin, Noah Segan and Meagan Good, the 2005 movie “Brick”, despite its critical acclaim, remains still largely a cult hit, and an interesting genre twist.

Not Much Chance of Coming Out Clean

Meet Brendan Frye, smart-mouthed, witty outcast, who was cast out after he ousted a small-time pot dealer, Jarrett, to the principal when he found him selling to his girlfriend.  Nobody likes a snitch, including Emily herself, thus, he then spent most of his days alone, constantly dodging bad looks from Jarrett’s buyers and friends.  This all changes when Emily, after months, calls Brendan.  Desperate, she tells him that “she didn’t know it was bad,” and that “the Pin’s in on it now for poor Frisco.” She runs away before she can give him anything concrete, which prompts Brendan to seek her out, constantly citing along his way that what she does, what happens to her, are both her business, he just needs to find her, since she came to him first.  Unfortunately for Brian, Emily’s new environment (the “pie-house rat” Dode and his hash-head friends, the short-fused Tug, the femme fatale Laura Donner) is hazardous, and it ends up getting her killed.  Brendan, instead of calling “the bulls” (the police,) sets out to find who put her in a position to be killed, stating to Brain, his informant, that “there’s not much chance of coming out clean.”

In case it wasn’t clear, “Brick” is a film noir. Its main characters fill the roles that almost invariably exist in noirs: Brendan is the private detective (in this case an amateur sleuth,) Laura is the femme fatale, Brain is the dime-dropper, Dode is the spanner-in-the-works weasel, the Pin is the enigmatic dope-runner/mafia boss, Tug is the hot-headed henchman, and a variety of other characters fill the story with all the trappings of a classic noir.  Back-room deals, rapid-fire, smart-mouth and slang-heavy dialogue (“Throw one at me if you want, hash-head, I got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me a six-up on the lot of you!”), slow-paced and heavy atmosphere (despite lacking ever-present cigarettes and dimly-lit rooms) and a multi-layered story that reveals itself step by step by step, intricate relationships and a very interesting chain of events that led to Emily’s death make “Brick,” as it has been said elsewhere, noir to its very bones.

The main difference of “Brick” from any other noir is that it does not take place in the back alleys and the seedy underbelly of 1950’s Chicago, has no men in double-breasted suits and tipped fedoras constantly smoking, features no Tommy guns, and Marlene Dietrich is nowhere to be seen.  This is because “Brick” takes place in today, or, more accurately, in 2005, and in an unnamed American high school.  The aforementioned characters, with the notable exception of the Pin, are all high school students – when Brendan gets roughed up by Tug in a parking lot, he isn’t called in by the police chief, he is called in by the Principal.  The very few instances of actual fights, they are either fist-fights, or involve knives instead of guns, and there is not one shootout in the entire movie.  Most importantly, these high school students speak in classic noir slang, dropping terms such as  “bulls” (police), “yegg” (burglar/criminal), “heeling (it)” (leaving), at least one instance of a “(stool) pigeon” (snitch) mention, Dode calling Brendan “Shamus” (detective) at one point…. It’s wonderfully anachronistic and makes “Brick” not only look and act, but sound and talk unique as well.

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High School Noir

“Brick” however, does not let its style overtake its substance – a good noir needs a solid, progressive story that invokes more curiosity with each layer peeled back.  Luckily, “Brick” takes itself seriously enough to maintain a classical, appearing-as-we-go-along storyline to go with its strange setting.  The modifications made for the plot to progress, such as Brendan’s unscheduled visit to the Vice Principal (who is a placeholder for a police Captain), fit wonderfully and in keeping with the noir style, dwell primarily on one thing.  The movie’s aforementioned break from the “seedy underbelly of 1950’s Chicago” is because it takes place in the “seedy underbelly of a 2000’s high school.” The shady acts incorporated into this environment are modified accordingly, scaled down.  Nobody’s walking around with a gun strapped to their side (save for maybe Tug,) scarcely anyone smokes, and a scene rather reminiscent of “Double Indemnity” takes place in the parlor of a student’s costumed party as per her parents going out of town.  Due to the ages of those involved, The Pin, the local spook story, is said to be “really old, like 25.” The hasheads that hang with Dode are depicted to be hopeless stoners wasting time in their corner.

However, the impact of the events is an extreme contrast to this.  Noir often involves the death of a woman the protagonist/Private Eye was fond of or loved, and almost always has the betrayal of the femme fatale stored up.  “Brick” doesn’t pull any punches because it takes place in a high school and all of its characters are still underage.  Emily’s death in particular is presented in a rather depressing scene, devoid of anything but ambient sounds, as Brendan simply stares at her lifeless body dumped in a ditch.  Emily’s isn’t the only death, of course – there is one death by gunshot and one by a beating, the second of which is stylistically made even more poignant by quick jump-cuts depicting increasing amounts of blood on the knuckles of a fist.

The contrast also bleeds out into Brendan’s relationship with two of the most prominent women both in his life and in the movie – Laura Donner, the resident femme fatale and Emily.  The latter is reminiscent of the classic noir “Out of the Past” where the protagonist has unfinished business with a woman, as we are shown that Emily and Brendan were an item for a long time, until Emily’s shifting social priorities and, as put by one character, “picking her way down the food chain” put an end to their relationship.  Emily is a figure from Brendan’s past, a part that he can’t let go of.  As for Laura Donner, Brendan sees that she’s a danger to him from the start, even remarking that if he took her along, “he’d have to tie one eye up watching both her hands.” But Laura’s presence, both as a very strong connection to the events and her growing closeness to Brendan (real or not) makes him surrender, if only briefly.  So in a way, “Brick”s noir character also comes in the form that it pays particular attention to the protagonist’s relationships with the women in his life.

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However, as much as noirs love to vilify the femme fatales and make saints from their “innocents”, “Brick” subverts this.  At first glance and during Brendan’s initial interviews (as well as flashbacks) Emily is shown to be a desperate girl who got herself in a tough situation and is trying to wriggle out.  In the scene where Brendan and Emily meet and talk, Emily gives off the same vibe, but as she did before, she refuses Brendan’s offer for help.  However, Brendan’s quest to save an innocent (who made a few bad decisions) wronged gets twisted up when Emily is revealed to be a bit less than that, and a lot more desperate.  To spoil, she was pregnant at the time of her death, and the identity of the father was open to debate on a wide scale, with at least three main characters claiming fatherhood of the now-dead child.  Laura implies that Emily was certain Brendan was the father, but, as Kara puts it, “it’s a long list (of candidates.)”

Another aspect of Brick that comes shining through is how complex the actual plot is, especially in the way that it ties together characters.  Someone seen in only two scenes (Kara, Dode) can turn out to be pivotal to the chain of events that kicked off and lay in the background of the plot.  The main plot turns out to be an intricate dope-running web that went sideways when one of the “bricks” went missing, turned back up, but it was skimmed off and cut back bad, which put Frisco Farr (unseen character) into a coma, for which Emily is blamed, which is where Brendan comes in – but there is a lot more to it than just someone wanting to get high or swipe a little bit off the drug money, and it is all spinning its wheels – with Brendan as the gumshoe spanner in the works.

Subversion and Tribute

The line between subversion and tribute lies in how much the child can be contrasted with the parent.  “Brick” is a tribute to film noir, which shows that noir isn’t dependent on dark skies, smoke-covered rooms, shootouts and double-breasted suits.  Using lots of daylight, cutting down most characters to unarmed teenagers, but keeping the intricate plotline, the archetypal characters, the smart-mouth slang, “Brick” does film noir a great service, while managing to be its own creature.  Rian Johnson has remarked that he was inspired by Raymond Chandler when he wrote the novella that the film is almost a word-for-word adaptation of, and it shows.