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Film Reviews: Wednesday, May 17, 2006
Brick
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Nora Zehetner. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. Rated R. Now playing in Dallas.
Pinning the Blame

Bizarre and cool, Brick brings the film-noir world to high school.

By KRISTIAN LIN

A movie you simply have to see because it’s so weird, Brick stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, a high-school student who receives a tearful, semi-coherent phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Lost’s Emilie de Ravin). She’s clearly in deep trouble, though she panics and hangs up before she can tell him what kind. This is where the story begins, but the movie begins two days later, with Brendan discovering Emily’s dead body in a concrete drainage ditch.

This is heavy stuff for a teen drama, but the weird part is the script’s rapid-fire, simile-laden dialogue that’s straight out of 1940s film-noir thrillers. (“I hear you been sniffin’ me out like a vampire bat lookin’ for a horse with a nick in its ear that it can suck on.”) These contemporary high-schoolers use cell phones and the internet, but they never listen to music or watch movies that would indicate the present day. Nor do they ever attend class, although this makes sense because there are hardly any adult characters in the film to act as teachers. Instead, these teens conduct their affairs in the auditorium, on the football field, and at a costume party where a scarlet-kimono-clad femme fatale appropriately named Laura (Nora Zehetner) recites the lyrics to Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The sun whose rays are all ablaze” while playing bluesy music on a grand piano.

This shouldn’t work. This should be unspeakably bad. This should be left to the Coen brothers on one of their good days, because that’s what it would take to pull this off. Yet the vision of twentysomething writer-director Rian Johnson proves to be oddly persuasive.

Aided on the sly by a nerdy kid called The Brain (Michael O’Leary), Brendan traces Emily’s murder back to The Pin (Lukas Haas), who runs the school’s thriving drug trade and keeps as low a profile as it’s possible to keep for a 26-year-old who accessorizes with an overcoat and a gold-tipped cane. Brendan carries on his quest mostly through diplomacy and guile, though he’s not above picking a fight with the star of the football team to draw attention. Laura agrees to help him find Emily’s killers, saying “I don’t know anyone who’d do that for me.” Brendan’s response: “You really are dangerous.”

The limitations of Johnson’s low budget become apparent in some ineptly staged fight scenes, though the movie’s one on-screen shooting looks real enough. Still, he keeps up his movie’s magnificently original conceit against all odds, mainly by getting his young cast to play the material absolutely straight, never camping it up or self-consciously imitating 1940s acting mannerisms. Gordon-Levitt is particularly strong; the little kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun has grown into a bold and intelligent actor. Last seen as a feral, self-destructive gay hustler in Mysterious Skin, here he’s flinty and purposeful. The lion’s share of stylized dialogue goes to him, and a less talented actor would have made the movie unwatchable. Instead, Gordon-Levitt negotiates it with so much skill that sometimes he appears to be skating on the surface, putting his lines over with his tough-guy attitude. During a lull in the investigation halfway through, however, Brendan retreats to his room, curls up on his bed, and cries over his poor lost Emily. It’s tough to imagine Humphrey Bogart doing this. But then, even Bogie must have been a teen-ager once.


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