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Empire List #489: Brick

Ever come across a movie where the dialogue makes the characters seem smarter than they look? “Brick” directed by Rian Johnson is such a movie. It takes the dialogue of film noir films and puts it in the mouths of high school kids. The gumshoe detective is an average kid investigating the death of his ex-girlfriend. Instead of a police lieutenant threatening to throw the gumshoe in prison, there is a high school principal threatening to throw the kid in detention if he doesn’t back off. There is a drug dealer calling the shots from his lair, except his lair is his mother’s basement.

I first heard about “Brick” via apple trailers and was intrigued by the concept of a Dashiell Hammett story set in a modern setting. It came out in 2005, but in limited release only so I had to wait until fall of 2007 to finally rent it. That fall I was living in an apartment off the campus of the University of Sherbrooke. The place was tiny, with a bad Internet reception, and I had to walk up a hill to get to my classrooms, but at least there was a video store nearby. A crappy video store with scratched DVDs, but a video store nonetheless. At least “Brick” was available.

Overall, it’s a great way to spend an evening. The story begins when Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) a high school student in California is staring at the dead body of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) lying in a storm drain. She had called previously asking for his help, but told him cryptic words such as “tug,” “pin,” and “brick.” Deciding to solve her murder, Brendan investigates the meaning of her words with “The Brain” (Matt O’Leary) a loner who sits in the same place all day playing with a Rubik’s Cube, but hears everything that matters. Deciphering the meaning of each word sends Brendan to a slew of classic film noir characters that most of the time cannot be trusted.

This movie is a lot more fun if you are familiar with film noir conventions, or if you have at least seen one black and white movie set in the 1930s. Brendan is almost fearless as he runs into dangerous characters that beat him up and leave him scarred for the rest of the movie. Getting hurt by the bad guys is a classic element of a detective story. In “Chinatown,” itself a throwback to 1930’s films, when Jack Nicholson gets too close to the truth, Roman Polanski cuts his nose with a pocket knife, forcing Nicholson to spend the rest of the movie wearing a bandage on his face.

Also essential is the hero interacting with a femme fatal. Brendan is cool as a cucumber when he meets seductive play actress Kara (Meagan Good) who may have information regarding Emily’s fate. When she angers him, he grabs her and throws her half naked on centre stage. It’s more of a blow to her ego than her body.

The cast doesn’t have any big names, although Gordon-Levitt has grown in popularity in recent years. One name that stands out is Richard Roundtree who plays the principal. His presence makes sense since, although he never was in a film noir, he did play a private investigator in the 1970’s classic “Shaft.” That movie is now looked at more as a blaxploitation film, but the story does follow the classic structure of a detective story, just like “Brick.”

What makes “Brick” stand out is the dialogue. These characters not only act like 1930’s characters, but talk like them too. “You better be sure you wanna know, what you wanna know” a character warns Brendan as he gets closer to the truth. It may seem bizarre at first, but it’s a lot more entertaining than listening to modern-day high school characters talk about their BFF over a cell phone. Brendan actually uses a phone booth in the beginning of the story.

I would be afraid to give the ending away if I could explain it clearly. It’s not just the fact that I haven’t this movie in a while; it’s the fact that like all good noir films the interactions of the characters muddle the resolution. Doesn’t matter: I once saw “The Big Sleep” in a film class on Hollywood cinema and even the teacher couldn’t explain the ending. That didn’t stop the film from being entertaining from start to finish, just like with “Brick.”

I saw this movie by myself in a tiny room on my computer two years after it came out in theatres, but how else was I going to watch it? Movies like these don’t get distributed the same way huge movies like “Transformers” do, which is a shame considering the difference in story quality between the two. But, thanks word of mouth small movies like “Brick” can be found on DVD and on demand. They are definitely worth looking for.

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