Seen immediately after watching “Justified,” the movie “Brick” (2005) is like wine after orange juice, Goggins or no Goggins. No, no, that’s not right. It’s like spring water after rot gut. Suddenly you can see to the bottom of the genre, what it is essentially in its chill clarity. All this film noir stuff was high school all along! If you think I mean it is childish, you’re wrong. It’s primal, the way adolescence is. Authority figures are so remote they don’t even count. Love of each other is everything. Everyone is his own hero, taking violence as it comes, thinking they are immortal. Death is a surprise. Everyone is acting: posing, making up, acting out -- but with deadly seriousness, “for reals.” It wasn’t so long ago that the average lifespan was in the twenties and thirties -- barely time enough to make a baby, much less raise it.
This movie is intended to be “film noir” except not so noir -- a new take on a familiar genre. I used to joke about a film noir series that was shot in Portland where everything is always in the rain and the light is always silvery, that it was “film gris.” “Brick” is “film blanc” as in white t-shirt and white brick, which is the macguffin: a brick of heroin. When high school isn’t about sex these days, it’s about drugs. But this is not grimly realistic -- no syringes, a little smoking because what’s film noir without curls of smoke? Sex and drugs are offstage. These kids don’t even say fuck.
Instead of dark nighttime passages up narrow alleys, the action here is on the broad flat spaces of So-Cal parking lots, playing fields, warehouse loading zones, 6-lane highways, empty plazas and cement culverts with canals big enough for boats. The main set is a high school “campus” where lockers are outdoors and low walls try to guide foot traffic. (You’re not supposed to walk along the top.) This is not about catching a nap during class, but about how to hide in a private corner in the library or how to hang outside without being caught.
The language of this movie is remarkable. The writer says he thought of it as being like song lyrics. It sounds like poetry, short rhythmic dialogue, and the sub-titles are grouped like poetry. You’ll NEED the sub-titles. The shorthand and slang referred to are from Hammett, Spillane, Shakespeare, and teen slang, which is as specialized as underground criminal jargon. Some of it was invented for the movie. You need the words because the plot turns sharp corners. It is a combination of crossword puzzles and Rubik’s Cube played out in a Mondrian built environment, everything flat, spare, square. The sound track is ditto, “found sound”.
The wicked male characters are, as is the noir tradition, kinda freaky and kinda dumb. The main enforcer, in white singlet and hat, uses his fists and in his fierce marches become somehow likeable, goofy. The main villain (“The Pin” for kingpin) is a little over the top. (It’s Lucas Haas, the boy from “Witness” who is now grown, in a great cape with one foot taped up to look deformed, carrying a duck-headed cane. Emily, Lucas’ mom in real life, came with one of my friends to visit in Browning in the Sixties and totally charmed all of us when she sang and danced in the Scriver Museum of Montana Wildlife with the full-mounted animals. She tied her scarf on the black bear’s head, which it seemed to like.) These are real Hollywood actors with “chops” and savvy -- not locals pulled off the street. There are two adults: the Kingpin’s mom and the high school vice principal. They are stereotypical but not puppets.
As is traditional, the hero, though constantly baffled and balked, is totally focused on finding out what the truth is. (The payoff is the last line of the movie. It’s not heroin.) His sidekick, “Brain,” knows a lot somehow but never figures in the action. The women are all femme fatales: one the needy help-me girl, one the vamp whose schemes drive the plot, and one the shape-shifting, knows-everything witch -- always in an extraordinary costume.
The main vibes of film noir are supposed to be paranoia and helplessness, except that the Bogart character -- through sheer determination and endurance -- survives for the next plot. The following comments come from the blood-spattered website called “Crimeculture.” http://www.crimeculture.com/Contents/Film%20Noir.html
“Shared guilt is often the only common bond amongst noir characters, who are usually doomed to be isolated and marginalised. The main themes are generalisations of the ill-fated relationship between the protagonist and his society. Characters suffer either from failures of agency (powerlessness, immobilising uncertainty) or from loss of community (isolation, betrayal). Obsessed, alienated, vulnerable, pursued or paranoid, they suffer existential despair as they act out narratives that raise the question of whether they are making their own choices or following a course dictated by fate.”
“Brick” is not a parody. Instead it suddenly occurs to us that film noir, aside from being connected to the crisis of existence after WWII, is repeated in the crisis of existence of many an adolescent. It’s high school rules, high school goals. Everything is so real, so crucial, every relationship seems as though it might be one’s last chance at . . . something. It is a reflexive time, when one is always watching in mirrors, trying out the little gestures of meaning.
Rian Johnson, the writer and director, nurtured this script from the time he was in high school himself, (b. 1973 so class of ‘91?), in fact, this very same high school in San Clemente. His family was well-to-do enough to loan the money to make the movie. (Under a million.) He and his brother had shot video from the earliest possible age, so that though this movie was shot in 35 mm, a camera was nearly built-in to their heads. Things like the special effects to make a common trash bag into a kind of apparition were easy for them. The brother, who was in London, composed the music by working via the Internet.
And yet this movie is not overloaded with gimmicks and illusions, none of the rancid involutions of “Twin Peaks.” The camera stays, gazing clear-eyed, sometimes from an odd angle, at the plain facts of desperation and loneliness that we somehow fail to see in real life.