Rian Johnson, director
Reviewed by Kim Nicolini
Thursday, June 1 2006, 7:45 PM
I went to see Brick when it came to my town because I’d heard a lot about it and thought it sounded interesting. It was interesting, alright. Yet in all honesty, I think it’s a little too interesting for its own good. It’s worth seeing for the photography and the sound. But as a whole, the movie is mixed-up, confused, and trying too hard to be smart.
Brick is novice director Rian Johnson’s attempt to make a clever, postmodern high school film noir. Johnson obviously loves film, and Brick pays tribute to a long line of cinema including the noirs based on Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story, River’s Edge and David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Twin Peaks. The narrative backbone of the movie is a high school guy’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) obsession with his missing ex-girlfriend, who is caught up in something she shouldn’t be. He eventually finds her dead, and the movie reveals some kind of convoluted drugs-and-gangs-in-high-school plot that even includes a stand-in femme fatale. And I say “stand-in” because that’s what this whole movie feels like: as though everything were standing in for some cinematic reference or archetype. Ultimately, however, Brick seems to be an empty exercise in cleverness that never comes together as anything more than an overly self-conscious attempt to be clever. The film falls flat. A “stand-in” high school femme fatal somehow just isn’t as satisfying as Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, or Barbara Stanwyck.
The problem with Brick is that by referencing so many movies, it only reminds us how much better the movies it references are than this exercise in masturbatory cleverness. It’s fairly obvious that the films of David Lynch were a big influence on Brick. The film certainly evokes Lynch’s hallucinatory vision of Los Angeles as portrayed in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. The interior shots exhibit Lynch’s proclivity towards vintage lamp fetishism. The crippled gang leader with his weird June Cleaver-on-acid mom could have been lifted from any number of Lynch movies, and the dead girl in the sewer surely reminds us of the severed ear found at the beginning of Blue Velvet and the corpse of Laura Palmer that washes ashore in Twin Peaks. But still, all these Lynch references did was to make me want to go home and watch a real David Lynch film. Seriously, to quote David Lynch so literally in a film is a pretty brave maneuver. Lynch is an auteur, a cinematic artist of the highest degree, and he knows exactly what he’s doing when he makes a movie. His movies are tight, flawless artistic constructions inscribed with his unique vision and cinematic sensibility. If you’re going to borrow that sensibility for your own movie, then the movie better be equally flawless and tight. Brick, however, is not.
It’s obvious that Brick is trying hard to be something. The screenplay is written in stilted formal syntax and the actors deliver their lines in a highly theatrical artificial manner, as if they were reciting blank verse, giving the picture a Dashiell-Hammett-meets-William-Shakespeare feel. The language incorporates a combination of street vernacular about drugs and gangs with Johnson’s own ever-so-clever self-made language. It even has a Bad Girl/Black Girl musical theater student who is a stand-in for a Greek Chorus. Pretty clever. But do we need Dashiell Hammet, William Shakespeare, a Greek Chorus, and David Lynch? Do we need something that clever? I don’t know about you, but I don’t.
Brick ends up giving the impression of a rough draft of ideas that fails to cohere as a substantive piece of art. The film does have its merits, though. The cinematography is exquisite and flawless. Each shot is perfect, with exceptionally effective framing, lighting, and composition. And the sound editing is a masterful exercise in creating an audio soundscape from seemingly extraneous sounds – heels falling on concrete, doors opening and closing, shoes rubbing together. But of course, David Lynch films are also masterpieces of sound editing.
I realize I’m making Brick sound a lot crappier than it is. I mean, it really is interesting. But ultimately, if I want to see a Dead-Girl-In-High-School movie, I’d rather see River’s Edge or Twin Peaks.