Ahead of the release of Rian Johnson’s latest film, Knives Out, Full Circle Cinema will be providing weekly retrospectives on his previous directing efforts. The first up is his directorial debut, Brick.
I can’t think of a better way to kick off a directing career than what Rian Johnson did with Brick. Well, besides Reservoir Dogs, but that’s beside the point. Really, Johnson burst onto the scene in 2005 with his first full length theatrical feature. The film centers around a teenage loner (Joseph Gordon Levitt) who pushes his way into the underworld of a high school crime ring to investigate the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. Thanks to Johnson’s writing and directing, the film oozes with what would soon become his trademark style.
I will admit, by any conventional perspective, Brick is far from a perfect film. Everything surrounding the low budget production of the film shows that Johnson was boxed in creatively with what he could work with. However, it is thanks to the production that the film is as special as it is. What Johnson was able to do with what little resources he had is astounding. Because of it, it is one of my favorite films of all time.
Firstly, the narrative takes place in an extremely interesting world. A world where a high school setting functions as the backdrop for a gripping crime noir. The script is famously written with its own strange sort of lingo that you are thrown headfirst in as soon as the film starts. You are caught off guard by the sharp and witty dialogue that is practically speaking its own language. Once you catch on, you feel like you’re a part of the world yourself. This sort of nonsensical gritty crime setting in a high school would not work as well with anyone besides Johnson at the helm. Nearly all the way through, he plays it straight. The seriousness that the actors bring to the story is amazing.
Levitt plays our leading man Brendan, who is the detective in this crime story. Brought into this ugly world of crime by the disappearance of his ex, Brendan sticks out like a sore thumb. His nerdy exterior fools viewers in the beginning, but when the story gets going you see how tough he can really be. Levitt’s narration throughout the film is another highlight of Brick. This is the final storytelling mechanic that truly sells it as a hard-boiled detective flick. Brendan is joined by a variety of other colorful characters as well. Two standouts in particular are The Pin (Lukas Haas) and Tugger (Noah Fleiss). Serving as somewhat antagonists/obstacles for the film, The Pin and Tug provide for some of the best scenes of the film with Brendan.
The Brain (Matt O’Leary) plays the reluctant sidekick to Brendan. Their chemistry is humorous and provides a lot of the faster paced dialogue. Laura (Nora Zehetner), the femme fatale of the film, makes for some great intrigue in the plot with a terrific performance from Zehetner.
The colorful cast of high school characters absolutely compliment the moody atmosphere. You wouldn’t expect a story of this caliber about drugs, deception, and desire in a high school setting. However, it does. And it works so well. In the few occasions that certain scenes in Brick make you realize what you’re watching takes place in high school, it is hilarious. Those few breaks from the tension really help the film. One scene in particular involving a juice box is quite humorous.
Scene choreography and certain buildups and confrontations are my favorite things about Brick. Whether it be Brendan giving a beatdown (or taking one) to get information, or under the table meetings at drainage tunnels, this is the first film to show how good Rian Johnson is at racketing up tension.
The soundtrack by Nathan Johnson is perfect for the film as well. Created with unconventional instruments ranging from utensils to shelves and drawers, the soundtrack has a low-value aesthetic. That works very well to match the aesthetic of the rest of the film. Reading about how Rian and Nathan Johnson worked on the score communicating through Skype is one of the many stories of the films production that makes me smile.
Brick also marks the collaboration between Johnson and DP Steve Yedlin. The gritty and moody aesthetic of the film is in no small part thanks to Yedlin’s work behind the camera. Yedlin and Johnson did their best to avoid common Noir attributes, which is most notable in hardly using of shadows. Specifically, shadows of blinds on walls. There are several obscure angles that focus on other parts of the characters, say, Brendan’s boots walking on the pavement, that provide more impact for the scene they are in. While shadows were used rarely in the film, they’re used for great drmatic effect. Whether in a drainage tunnel or the school library, the cinematography of Brick is astounding.
There are so many ways this film could not have worked. On paper, the concept sounds ridiculous. Thanks to Rian Johnson though, this directorial debut is an amazing first step forward in his filmography. With a gripping and intense story, memorable characters, and unexpected setting, Brick is easily one of my most favorite films of all time. The film is a great example (both in production and story) of taking things that work against you and using them to your advantage. – Ernesto Valenzuela