In a conceit that shouldn't work and does, Brick brings the high school movie to a new level. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, the noir-inspired whodunit takes the best (and some of the worst) bits and pieces from every film made in the '40s, enlists actors who are barely old enough to drink, and has them spit out dialogue that would have made Bogart proud.
The film centers on Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a loner who eschews the popular crowd and yet can mingle with them when needed. After he receives a disturbing phone call from his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Lost's Emilie de Ravin), and then she vanishes. Concerned, he sets out to find her and ends up finding her dead body. At a loss as to what to do, he enlists the help of Brain, a fellow student and Rubik's Cube obsessed know-it-all, to get to the bottom of what happened to Emily. As Brendan gets closer to the truth, he finds himself getting further into the world of The Pin (Lukas Haas) the town drug lord who uses the kids from Brendan's high school to peddle his wares around town. In becoming a peripheral part of The Pin's gang, Brendan hooks up with Laura (Nora Zehetner), the obligatory noir femme fatale, and she aids him in getting to the bottom of the Emily mystery. Throughout the film we learn more clues, and get even more red herrings, before the climax where Brendan's ideas of what really happened aren't quite in line with the truth and the truth isn't quite what he wants to know.
In less capable hands, the role of Brendan would have been less than believable as the Sam Spade of the new millennium. Gordon-Levitt, better known for his earlier roles on the TV show 3rd Rock From The Sun and films such as 10 Things I Hate About You, continues to prove that he easily one of the more talented actors of his generation. Building on the powerhouse performance he gave in Mysterious Skin, here he's all squinty-stoicism, with just enough vulnerability and obsessive love to make us understand why it's so important for him to find out what really happened to Emily. Nora Zehetner, also an ex-pat of a TV show (the recently canceled Everwood), plays Laura with the requisite smoldering and manages to milk her doe-eyed innocence for all it's worth. It's a combination that works, and instead of being a one-note character, Laura is the type of girl that we don't know for sure we can trust, but we do know we want to see her again in the next scene. Similarly, Lukas Haas's turn as The Pin was a nice departure from his usual role, and he managed to hold his own, even with the slightly ridiculous accessories of a cape and cane, all the while living with his mother.
While The Maltese Falcon and other Dashiell Hammett works are the obvious inspiration of this film, the way Johnson takes the old genre and uproots it into a completely foreign atmosphere is completely his own. In film and television, teenagers are always given the kind of dialogue we only wish we could come up with in real life; here is much of the same except they all acknowledge it in the rapid-fire way they deliver each line. It's not meant to sound like a typical Californian high school; the point is more that this is the type of story, the type of mystery-cum-tragedy that can happen anywhere, any time. This is no tale of morality, and though the eponymous "brick" is exactly what you think it is, there's no judgment about it, save perhaps a reminder to always know what you're getting, and from whom. The great thing about Brick is also what you would think work against it: there are no big name stars, no amazingly new and unique plot, no mind-blowing effects, just a stripped down plot, with solid acting and solid direction. Only in its simplicity does it find success.
"Brick" opens March 31, 2006 and is rated R. Film-Noir, Mystery. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Emilie De Ravin, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Lukas Haas, Matt OLeary, Meagan Good, Noah Fleiss, Norah Zehetner.