Overview: A high school student tries to unravel the mystery behind his ex-girlfriend’s death. Focus Features. 2005. Rated R. 110 Minutes.
A Modern Twist: The feature film debut of writer/director Rian Johnson, Brick is a neo-noir detective mystery set around a group of contemporary high school students. Johnson’s approach to film noir is a direct and authentic one. He uses traditional techniques—such as low angle camera shots and a flashy visual style– and the distinct language from a bygone era to create the film noir universe. The dialogue is a combination of slick, witty prose and pieces of a sophisticated, manufactured language. The end result is an expertly-crafted homage to the genre and a hit-the-ground-running debut from Johnson.
The Leading Man: The detective of the story is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a loner who stumbles into a mystery that is deeper than it first appears. Gordon-Levitt provides a terrific performance here, which helps set him apart from the image of his time as a child actor (this was his first major role as an adult after appearing in 3rd Rock from the Sun and 10 Things I Hate About You). Brendan has distinct characteristics that are typical of leads in film noir: his wire rim glasses half covered by his disheveled hair; his wiry arms always hunched, hidden, and shielded in the pockets of his tan jacket; and his smooth, brown leather boots, continuously clacking audibly as he slinks around. These characteristics give Brendan an air of mystery and the film a consistent visual style.
Technical Proficiency: Johnson displays a technical prowess here that would be impressive for an established auteur, let alone a first-time director. He uses natural camera effects and subtle visual clues to help build the elaborate mystery. Every frame and image is meaningful and nothing is wasted here.
The Details: The film features a cryptic and melancholy score, using what sounds like twangs, bells, and plucked strings to aid in the mysterious aura. Johnson uses practical jump cuts to create passes in time and provide a visual style to transitions, and a unique application of sound and volume to create a narrative that is richly audible from the details up. The sound amplification is most notable with Brendan’s shoes. They make a distinct sound when he moves and Johnson uses that in several scenes to create perceptible tension.
Watch This Movie If: You like film noir, The Maltese Falcon, Looper, or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Final Thoughts: Brick is an interesting, modern twist to the film noir and an impressive feature debut for Rian Johnson. He displays a rarely seen, natural talent for filmmaking and establishes his roots as a rising auteur and a name to look out for.