Monday, January 9, 2012

'Brick' Delves Into Seamy Side Of High School Noir

It's amazing how well life at a typical suburban high school can resemble the plot of a classic film noir. That's the conceit behind "Brick," the 2005 Rian Johnson feature he wrote and directed.

High school outsider Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) goes looking for his missing girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). In his search he delves into the sordid teenage underworld of suburban California drug traffickers, rich spoiled brats and hoodlums hardened far beyond their years. The leader of the local gang of toughs, The Pin (Lukas Haas), balances his life of crime and life at home with mother -- she serves juice to her son's visitors.

The film's dialog is a patois of circa 1930s and '40s crime movie jargon, updated with some modern-day crime-slang inventions. It's at first a little difficult to accept a bunch of high schoolers talking like characters from a Mickey Spillane novel, but the odd juxtaposition of youths and vintage wise-guy talk starts to sound natural after a while.

Actually, it might be an oversimplification likening "Brick"to Spillane novels. The movie's dialog is more like the poetic flights that Clifford Odets put in the mouths of characters in 1957's "Sweet Smell of Success." Those words and sentences have little to do with the way people really talk, but they're positively musical once your ear becomes accustomed to the film's idiosyncrasies.

The thrill of "Brick" is its absolute adherence to the conventions of film noir. In the wonderful meeting between Brendan and Assistant Vice Principal Trueman (Richard Roundtree), snappy, clipped dialog and dramatic understatement rule the day. Brendan gets called on the carpet for cutting class, and the exchange between student and administrator is classic. You've seen Bogart do it a thousand times. A crusty D.A. insists that Bogie come across with information on the case he's working, and Bogie gives him some defiant, wise-guy answers. The same conversation fits neatly into the well-tailored folds of "Brick."

Brendan fills the role of the classic noir protagonist. He's looking for answers in a world where it seems no one else is even aware of the questions. Relationships here are fraught with betrayal, and it takes a monumental effort on our hero's part to at last cut through the ever-present subterfuge and discover the truth.

We're with him the whole way. And even if the structure and dialog seem familiar, "Brick" does the incredible job of breathing new life into a film style that predates the cast and director's parents.

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