Like much of the neo-noir that has graced our screens both in a contemporary, and period setting, “Brick” begins at the end. As we’ve seen in the device exemplified in “Sunset Boulevard,” we begin right at the tail end of the mystery. Where is Brendan’s ex-girlfriend Emily (Emile DeRavin is both unlikable, and heartbreaking)? What I can tell you is that most audiences for this film won’t even realize that Johnson is paying homage to some of the greatest noir films ever made. From outright nods to Humphrey Bogart, and films like “The Maltese Falcon,” there are many elements with the same basic premise. Johnson never fills his audience in, but they’re watching noir set in modern times.
They’re watching high schoolers speak like twenties charlatans, and gumshoes, they’re hearing dialogue that’s been muttered in films like “The Big Sleep.” And hopefully, they’ll seek out the superior genre gems. “Brick” is actually a very tight little neo-noir that’s more fantasy than reality. People in high school don’t act like this, but then they don’t need to. Johnson grabs a timeless theme and drops it onto modern suburbia where gangsters, jocks, and slutty cheerleaders play the roles of mob bosses, femme fatales, and back alley cronies. All that’s missing are the fedoras from this memorable little gem. High school loner Brendan happens upon the body of his ex-girlfriend Emily one day and now he decides he must find her killer or killers. Come hell or high water.
With the help of contacts like “The Brain,” a wiz in almost every bit of information, and the mysterious Laura, he has to track down a mysterious persona named The Pin. But in the midst of interrogation and beatings, the trail becomes much tougher, and much deadlier. Goddamn, when is Joseph Gordon Levitt going to be graced with an Oscar? It’s shocking how this cheesy child actor has been able to rise above his tag, and become one of the strongest young actors in film. From “Manic,” to “Mysterious Skin,” Levitt is able to take hold of his roles and steal scenes. In “Brick” he commands the settings and characters, and just makes the film his own. Brendan is a character of many shades.
At times he’s a typical noir hero, a man ruined by a dame, who ventures into the underbelly of crime, and slowly finds himself descending into madness at the cost of his own health, while also standing strong as this young man intent on finding out what happened to his ex-lover. He questions, he knocks heads, and he resists surefire temptations of the flesh as much as he can. Director Johnson puts his young cast to good use, implementing the individual talents to contribute to the overall entertainment, such as Lukas Haas who is great as the Pin, while Meagan Good is despicable yet sexy as the seductive prima donna snake Kara. Nora Zehetner as the accomplice Laura is attractive and enigmatic providing support for Brendan, even if we can never be sure what her motives are.
Most memorable though is the walk-on from Richard Roundtree as a vice principal trying to foil Brendan, as well as Noah Fleiss who is over the top as the gut stomping tough named Tugger. Johnson’s film surprisingly ends on a whisper, with a mystery that’s not just a journey of a killer, but also a journey of a jilted lover who is still struggling to come to terms with the split of his true love. And I was satisfied. In the midst of high school jocks, and shady cheerleaders, I knew what I was watching was Johnson giving a nod to the noir genre, and “Brick” is a worthy homage. Great performances, an utterly entertaining script, and a story filled with twists, “Brick” mostly lives up to the hype.