Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens did exactly what it needed to do. Creatively as well as commercially. Disney’s first foray into the world of Jedis and The Force essentially had to double as a standalone feature as well as a proof of concept. Because, as one glance in the direction of the Marvel monolith will attest, the world we now inhabit, like it or not, is one of cinematic universes and franchise table-setting, and J.J. Abrams and his team had the unenviable task of tapping into this ethos.
They also had an additional challenge, however — namely the delicate balancing act of reintroducing old (and incredibly rabid) fans into a universe they love and that had been, to their eyes, soiled by a trilogy of blasphemous prequels, while at the same time dazzling a whole new generation with the same kind of magic that had enthralled the legions that came before. They managed this, quite cleverly, by following the beats of the very first Star Wars movie — which is itself a pretty faithful follower of Joseph Campbell’s psychologically satisfying monomyth — while performing a baton pass of sorts from one group of actors to the next.
J.J. Abrams can be visually quite an accomplished director, and he has a penchant for breathlessly introducing vivid new worlds and colourful casts of characters, but when it comes to holding an expanding story together coherently, or coming at a situation from an interesting angle he tends to stumble somewhat.
Nevertheless, for Episode VII’s high profile scene-(re)setting, Abrams was an ideal choice. With that now complete, however, what Disney needed to do for the directly numbered follow-up was to hire an interesting, daring filmmaker. Preferably one who writes his own material and who ideally also has experience with a relatively large budget and named stars.
Enter Rian Johnson. The 43-year old has three feature films under his belt, all of which he also wrote himself: 2012’s excellent sci-fi Looper, 2008’s wonderfully twisty The Brothers Bloom, and 2005’s near-perfect statement of intent, Brick. As if that wasn’t a blinding enough CV, he was also behind the camera on three of the stand-out episodes of Breaking Bad: ‘Fly’, ‘Fifty-One’, and ‘Ozymandias’.
But it’s Brick that we are here to talk about.
‘Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.’
Shot for under $500,000 on 35mm and edited at home on Johnson’s computer, with music composed by his cousin, Brick was a revelation on release, and it has only appreciated in value in the decade since. It really is a remarkably singular achievement, fantastically rewarding to revisit, and I may be a little bit in love with it.
So I want to gush a little bit. Gush in a spoiler-free manner, in the interests of those fortunate souls who still get to experience it for the first time.
Ostensibly following a loner high school student (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as he tries to solve the mystery of the washed-up dead body of his estranged ex-girlfriend, Brick is one of those movies where the what of the matter pales in significance when compared to the how; the how in this case being the utterly mesmerising conceit of constructing the entirety of the movie’s structure and dialogue using the hardboiled building blocks pioneered by Dashiell Hammett and his peers, while at the same time still maintaining a contemporary, Southern Californian high school setting. That’s right: Joseph Gordon-Levitt is your teenaged, tousle-haired, hard-talking Bogart, wandering through a world filled with teenaged femme fatales and twenty-something Big Bad mob bosses.
This sleight of hand could easily fall apart under scrutiny, but amazingly it doesn’t. And that’s thanks to two things. Firstly, the script and the actors play the entire thing straight, never once winking at the camera. And secondly, the ornate, anachronistic language combines with the cinematography to nudge the whole universe into its own little parallel dimension, one inhabited almost entirely by teenagers, where the seriousness and gravity usually attributed by people of that age to events are actually appropriate, concerning as they do things like drug dealing, violence, and murder.
In 2005 Joseph Gordon-Levitt was still known to most of the world as the lanky-haired, sweet kid from 3rd Rock From the Sun, and 10 Things I Hate About You. Those who had been paying attention at the time would have seen him play amazingly against that type in 2001’s Manic and 2003’s Mysterious Skin, but it was with Brick that he completed his metamorphosis. He plays the troubled high school sleuth Brendan here so well that he almost achieves that rarest of feats: making a character who routinely delivers hyper-stylised dialogue like ‘He wants cash on the nail. He’s a pot-skulled reef worm with more hop in his head than blood. Why pay for dirt you can’t believe?’ seem three dimensional and human. Brendan Frye is a performance of a lifetime and a character that will forever be associated with Gordon-Levitt by anyone who witnesses it.
Working with cinematographer Steve Yedlin — who also joined him for Looper and who has since followed him onto the set of Star Wars: Episode VIII — Rian Johnson creates a hauntingly gorgeous world in Brick for our hero to stalk. Washed-out blues and greys abide, with empty car parks, school playgrounds, and geometric hallways framed in medium and long shots, often gradually swallowing up or regurgitating Brendan or the other noir archetypes that populate his world.
It all adds to this palpable sense of distance that Johnson wants us to feel. We are but observers of Brendan’s world. We are like the adults in his reality: oblivious and misunderstanding, if there at all. Because that’s another wonderful touch that Johnson imbues Brick with: an almost complete absence of non-school age characters. There are just two grown-ups that appear in the movie: the Vice Principal with whom Brendan butts heads, and who essentially fulfills the role of the police chief in the noir tradition (and who is played by Richard ‘Shaft’ Roundtree(!), shot almost exclusively from low angles):
The other adult is the Big Bad’s completely and hilariously clueless mother, who decides that a maximally tense standoff between her son and our hero is the perfect time to offer up apple juice and cornflakes.
Johnson doesn’t let us forget the nature of the story we are witnessing. He keeps reminding us that we are glimpsing a warped reality, one that is at the same time deadly serious, and yet still all taking place within the paradigm of adolescence. A great example of this is a telling break from the hardboiled lingo that happens during an exchange between Brendan and the aforementioned Big Bad:
BB: ‘You read Tolkien?’
BB: ‘You know, the Hobbit books?’
BB: ‘His descriptions of things are really good. He makes you wanna be there.’
The sudden and temporary lapse in language jolts us, and the choice of the more child-oriented ‘The Hobbit’ over ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ as a reference point further serves to underline that we are looking in on a world that is some sort of strange sub-set of our reality. In lesser hands this would amount to an acknowledgement of the inherent ridiculousness of the premise, but thanks to Rian Johnson, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the dedicated roster of actors the facade never slips, not for one moment. What we are left with is a unique and technically accomplished dive into a world that feels like a gift to aficionados of noir and movie history, as well as just a straight-up fun and engrossing movie.
Go watch it.
Petr Knava lives in London and plays music