No one knew better than John Hughes that high school is more than its own world, but a universe unto itself, with its own laws, physics, and population. The planets are the various cliques, the disparate groups of people that, not yet forced to co-exist in the real world as a result of employment and/or social graces, have chosen to stratify themselves into clearly defined and intensely loyal groups in order to survive. The reason that The Breakfast Club managed to carry weight on its release and maintain it 20 years after the fact is that kids in high school spend most of their time wanting to be or joyfully being the jock, the princess, the thug, or the brain (though there’s not much joy in the brain, actually). Entire civilizations can rise and fall in the course of seven periods and a hectic lunch. To high schoolers, the minutia of their routines and the ever-changing sociopolitical landscape of who hates whom tend to supersede rational thought. Rian Johnson, the writer and director of the phenomenal neo-noir-via-home-ec thriller Brick, understands this completely and, because he does, what could have been a gimmick becomes a shattering tale of love and heartbreak, told between the lockers and the portables. It’s one of the most willfully original thrillers to come along in quite a while, and fantastic to boot.
Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets a note in his locker one day with a date and time: He goes to the designated intersection and answers the pay phone to hear Emily (Emilie de Ravin), his ex, crying and pleading for his help, rambling on about “Poor Frisco” and “the Pin.” Brendan hasn’t seen her in two months, but like any good gumshoe still carrying a torch, the call is all he needs to start tracking her down. He enlists the help of the Brain (Matt O’Leary), a bookworm who’s worked deals with Brendan before, to start shaking up the high school underworld. From the start, Johnson’s world takes on a life and immediacy of its own, pulsing with the slick rhythms of his lightning dialogue and double-edged characters. Brendan dives into the complex social strata of his fellow students to try and pick up Emily’s trail. In another small but smart detail, he starts asking who she’s been eating with, since lunch table locations are the keys to understanding the echelons of the popular and less popular. He winds up at a party hosted by Laura (Nora Zehetner), the deadly dame of the piece, if you will. Brendan’s smart enough to know she’s playing an angle, but all he wants is a way to find Emily.
The Brain tips Brendan that the Pin (Lukas Haas) is a local big-time dope dealer, so Brendan assaults the Pin’s biggest client, an egotistical football player, to get his attention. Soon enough, Brendan gets approached and beaten up by Tug (Noah Fleiss), the Pin’s head muscle. Brendan’s fights with the jock and Tug are fairly close together, and they’re disturbing in their visceral honesty. This kid just starts beating on people, and gets plenty bloody in the process. The fight scenes, and there are several more, are often completely free of music, and what few melodies do appear in them are far from the bass-heavy bombast of typical genre brawls. Composer Nathan Johnson, the director’s brother, interweaves spare melodies and reworks haunting themes for each of the characters, ranging from something like loose, instrumental indie pop to piano-based ballad lines that play like an uber-depressed Gershwin. But his silence in the fight scenes serves to ground the film even more in its own sad realism: We start to understand that, far from the neutered deaths of a Bruckheimer movie, these people might actually kill each other. Brendan’s devotion to his cause at the willful expense of physical safety is reminiscent of Terrence Stamp’s Wilson, in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey. Wilson’s pursuit of his daughter through the slightly shady underworld of her one-time lover was the pure essence of a detective revenge story, but Brendan’s journey is actually darker. He’s chasing an ex, not a kid, so he’s working from a much different kind of neurosis.
I’ve barely scraped the surface of Johnson’s wonderfully layered plot, but that’s as much as I can say without getting way over my head with detail. The Brain finds out more about the Pin, who’s “supposed to be old, like 26,” and before long, Brendan actually meets him. The Pin wears a short cape, dresses all in black, and uses a cane, but does his business out his mother’s basement. He picks up Brendan at one point in a minivan outfitted with a leather chair and lamp, the kind of garage sale items that some people try to pass as antiques. The Pin is the ultimate overgrown child, acting the way he thinks druglords are supposed to act, right down to the megalomania and wardrobe. The absurdity of the situation and the fact that none of the players question the state of things are Johnson’s final ways to say that for these kids, their world is infinitely realer than the one with cops and teachers and rules as we know it. Brendan and the Brain use the cops as tools, tipping them anonymously or threatening such a possibility to get leverage into progressively darker inner circles. As he moves from group to group, though, Brendan always stands out: He eats alone and usually wears a white T-shirt and jeans under a functional, nondescript jacket, a loner’s uniform amid a sea of lettermen.
Throughout the film, Johnson’s characters fire off insults, warnings, and most everything else in their own unique and criminalized vernacular: Cops are bulls, guys are yegs, and anything easy is duck soup. When the Brain suggests to Brendan that they tip the bulls, Brendan says they’d just gum things up and find some yeg to pin to the crimes on, so bulls are out. It’s a gimmick, yes, but it’s a hell of an entertaining one, like Guy Ritchie without the accents or Quentin Tarantino without the postmodern rip-offs and incessant, ill-advised need to cast himself. Brick is worth seeing more than once, if only to revel in the way Gordon-Levitt spews out Johnson’s dialogue in Mamet machine-gun style, or the way Zehetner glides through her lines like quicksilver. Gordon-Levitt gives a towering performance as the grief-fueled Brendan and is certainly on his way to even bigger and better things, but he meets his match in Zehetner, a beautiful young actress who nails the femme fatale balance of apathy and deadliness. Here’s hoping she can move beyond a résumé that mainly consists of “Everwood” into meatier roles.
Brick succeeds because it takes events that shouldn’t happen and places them against the backdrop of public school, where we know all bets are off. Skewing the characters younger lets them act out dramas on a grander scale than more stereotypically adult fare. In fact, Brick is the best movie for grownups I’ve seen in a long time.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.Brick / Daniel Carlson
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()