Encased in That Fishbowl
There’s a lot of really talented people in this age range, and a lot of the movies that are geared towards them… are kind of the same kind of thing. There’s very little stuff that’s weird like this, and that has unique challenges like this that gets thrown at young people so we found a lot of young people that were very eager to jump into this.
—Rian Johnson, commentary track, Brick
Well, you better be sure you wanna know what you wanna know.
—Kara (Meagan Good), Brick
“Brick kind of started for me with the novels of Dashiell Hammett,” says writer-director Rian Johnson. “His writing style,” Johnson adds during the “deleted/extended scenes commentary, “is all about saying the most with the fewest possible words.” The film makes that effort as well, with sharp, definitive images and taut, imaginative language.
Or, start again. Johnson says that seeing Miller’s Crossing (“which I practically had memorized”) while in film school led him to reading an interview with the Coens, who mentioned their influence by Hammett, which in turn led Johnson to the books. Discovering what he terms the source of noir, he says, “made me want to make an American detective movie.” But in order to avoid reiterating the well-known cues of noir, Johnson says he came up with the “bizarre thing of putting it in high school.”
The film’s take on high school, as Johnson says late in his commentary, is less what it “was than what it felt like.” “Brick is to high school,” he observes, “as Gotham City is to New York City,” everything is “heightened.” Indeed, the stakes seem about right. Though Southern California student Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is hardly involved in a typical high school experience—investigating the murder of his much-missed ex, Emily (Emilie de Ravin)—his attitude is a function of his age and environment.
In part, Johnson explains, he sought this effect in the language, a “really conscious choice.” He describes it as “this strange slang, which is a weird mixture of everything from slang from the beginning of the century, from the Hammett, from the ‘50s, from modern day stuff, stuff I made up.” The dialogue sets a tone and serves a narrative purpose, immersing you in “a movie that hits the ground running and doesn’t really look over its shoulder to see if you’re keeping up with it.” And yet, for all its stylization (which, as Johnson notes, viewers either love or hate), Brick assumes its characters’ earnestness and limited scope. As Johnson puts it,
When you see high school portrayed in movies or tv… it’s more often than not portrayed from a very adult perspective. And by that I mean, it’s portrayed as a world that’s inherently less serious than the adult world. And from the adult perspective, that’s exactly what it is. It is silly who eats lunch with who or who gives who what look in the halls or who’s going out with who, who’s broken up with who… It’s a phase. But when you are a teenager, when you are in that world, you don’t have that perspective. And in a subjective way, it’s the most serious time in your life. Your head is completely encased in that fishbowl. It is life or death, these small things, because your whole field of vision is taken up by it.
Brick‘s simultaneous embrace of and challenge to high school movie conventions is filtered through noir. It begins as Brendan looks on Em’s body, pale and limp in a drainpipe, his glasses thick, his face tight. The scene cuts to “Two days previous,” when he gets a scribbled note from Em, left in his locker. Brendan arrives the appointed intersection, takes her phone call in a booth by the highway, and listens as she claims she actually doesn’t need help, though she said she did, then screams as she’s confronted by something terrible and unseen. (The movie is fond of throwback communications and tech. In addition to xeroxes and notes, Brendan uses a phone booth frequently; Johnson says they had trouble finding phone booths around San Clemente, so they carried on with them and erected it when needed.)
Throughout Brick, what you don’t see generates as much complication and tension as what you do. Sometimes this excess is off screen (Emily’s scare), sometimes just pushed to the back of a shot so it’s difficult to interpret, as when femme fatale Laura (Nora Zehetner, one of several cast and crew members Johnson speaks with on the commentary track—shuffling them in and out one at a time) blows off her jock boyfriend Brad (Brian J. White) under a streetlight: the image is gorgeously gloomy but what she says or what his reaction has to do with what comes next is unclear.
Brendan makes it his business to see what’s going on, and to gauge it according to his own moral compass. (He ignores this compass when he needs to, as when he threatens a pack of local stoners, led by Dode [Noah Segan]: “I got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.”) He’s aided in his quest by Brain (Matt O’Leary), who researches on the internet, reports on his mom’s cell phone, and likes the potential payback for the odious “upper crust” (“You think you can raise the strength,” he asks Brendan, “Maybe break some deserving teeth?”). Em was mixed up with the cool kids (“Who’s she eating with?” is the question marking her move away from Brendan), crossed someone, and ended up “in trouble.” Though Brendan tries to win her back, she resists his fretful-teen-boy possessiveness (“I really loved you a lot,” she says, “I couldn’t stand it”). At least he learns she’s “been with” other boys.
While this plot is generic, the execution is deft. Made for under $500,000 (“The lowest amount we could make the movie for on 35mm,” says Johnson, “We went to friends and family, we passed the hat; we did it old school, Blood Simple-style”), it was edited on a Mac in his bedroom and winner of a 2005 Sundance award for “originality of vision.” Johnson extols the approach:
“We were able to just go off with no grown-ups looking over our shoulder, with absolutely no restrictions on making the movie more sellable.”
And so Brick is original, loving the harsh angle (Steve Yedlin’s camera is low, skewed, too close or long, predominantly stationary set-ups) and blackout editing. The spaces are fragmented, making the puzzle of high school seem literal. The abuses are also literal, as Brendan steps into beatings, his pretty face smashed repeatedly, kicks and jabs fortified by big-fat throwdown sound effects.
The look is edgy and slightly ‘70s, a function of what production designer Jodie Tillen calls their ‘restrictions.” “We were like film gypsies,” she exults, “We just sort of did it on the fly… That was the excitement of it.” While Johnson spends precious little time on the “scene-specific commentary,” when he does describe a technique (say, for a slamming-forward punch in a parking lot, achieved through undercranking, a hidden cut, and “a dolly counter zoom”), he laughs about it: “You can make your own version of Brick at home.”
But for all its production ingenuity, the film also offers a smart script and performances. Aside from Brain, who first appears racing through a Rubik’s cube that Brendan casually fixes in seconds, Brendan’s allies are as ambiguous as his seeming adversary, the Pin. Brendan solicits occasional info from cheerleader/actress Kara (Meagan Good), whose ritual training of freshmen to do her bidding makes her equal parts Vampyra and Annie Savoy. But she’s plainly untrustworthy and enticingly excessive, whether in Sally Bowles or Kabuki drag, preparing for serial performances in front of her dressing room mirror.
The kids make their own way—including the local drug kingpin, the Pin (Lukas Haas), who wears black and carries a cane. Like other noir guys, Brendan’s own affiliations are sketchy. He may or may not be in cahoots with one of the only adults who appears in the film, Assistant Vice-Principal Gary Trueman (Richard Roundtree), who thinks he’s got the kid working as a narc, but this so-called agreement seems always on the verge of collapse, owing to Brendan’s own schemes and the fact that adults never get what’s going on in high school even if you tell them.
The film’s other visible adult, the Pin’s mom, makes sure the kids have juice and oatmeal cookies for snacks, then leaves them to their nefarious business, conducted at the kitchen table with ceramic chicken milk pourer included in most every shot. This chicken provides a particularly antic moment for the Pin’s very dedicated muscle, Tugger (Noah Fleiss, in a brilliant performance). Believing Brendan needs schooling at the table, Tugger lifts the chicken, glowers, and threatens to mash Brendan’s face, then takes a breath and stalks off, chicken in hand. The camera remains at table top level, watching the chicken disappear then reappear, as Tugger remembers to place it back where he found it. You don’t need to see Tugger’s face here to know what he’s thinking, his arm and torso are that expressive.
Cast as the fall-guy-gunsel, the not-so-bright Tugger drives a dark, loud Mustang and brings a welcome warmth and comedy to the film’s hardboily tone and violence. His hulking form in white knit cap, wifebeater, and big jeans, is at once menacing and assured. But he’s also vulnerable, exploited differently by Brendan and the Pin. By the end he’s almost poignant, and then you see for a moment at his home, a family made up of figures just like his, all hulking in front of the tv set. It’s an abrupt and very brief shift in perspective, and reminds you that this is exactly what high school (or noir) is about. You never know where someone’s coming from.