According to the IMDB, this movie cost less than half a million USDs to make. In the context of movie-making that's low budget. Really low budget. You can't tell from watching the film though, because it looks and feels like it cost at least ten times that amount (I'm basing my mathematics on what other 'low budget' films look and feel like). 'Brick', the debut feature film from writer / director Rian Johnson, is a noir detective story with a twist - it takes place in a high school setting and virtually all the characters are teenagers.
The opening scene of the film finds Brendan (Joseph Gorden-Levitt) staring pensively at the body of a girl (Emilie de Ravin) lying dead in front of the opening into a sewage tunnel. The film then flashes back to two days earlier, where the girl, whose name is Emily, calls Brendan and tells him she's in trouble and needs help but hangs up in a hurry without explaining any further. It turns out that she's an ex-girlfriend who left him because of his reluctance to play nice with the social elite at school, a crowd she wanted to be a part of. Brendan is something of a detective as well as a tough guy loner - he's a 'hard-boiled' protagonist - and he immediately sets to work trying to figure out how to help Emily. He contacts an associate, 'Brain' (Matt O'Leary), who is a wealth of information and resources, and with his help he manages to track down Emily's current dimwit boyfriend Dode (Noah Segan) and through him he sets up a meeting with Emily. She tells him she doesn't want his help and to leave her alone.
The next day Brendan discovers her body, and we're back to the opening scene of the film. He hides the body (to prevent the cops from getting involved) and sets out on a self destructive crusade to figure out who killed her and why, and he begins by shaking up the upper echelons of his high school's social circles. His investigation causes him to cross paths with a crafty ex named Kara (Meagan Good) and to take a beating from a belligerent, 'popular crowd' football player (though he wins the fight!) before he manages to get wind of a drug ring run by the mysterious 'Pin' (Lukas Haas) and his henchman Tugger (Noah Fleiss). He's also offered help from an alluring socialite girl named Laura (Nora Zehetner) who knew Emily, but he keeps her at a distance and remains suspicious of her motives. As Brendan begins to learn more about what type of trouble Emily was involved in, tensions within the different groups he's investigating begin to erupt.
I don't know much about hard-boiled noir fiction, but 'Brick' is an enthralling mystery story in its own right. The thing that sets it apart from other detective films is the unusual marriage of style and setting, which is decidedly unconventional. The key to appreciating the film is accepting the glaring incongruity - despite being set in a high school, the storyline, the dialogue, and the characters are ripped out of a different era and genre entirely. Everyone talks and behaves like they're in a detective movie, and this approach is initially jarring; it's perhaps too jarring for some, but after a while I really got into it. I think it works because the stylistic approach doesn't feel like something tacked on and is a fundamental aspect of the story being told. Actually, you could probably argue that the school setting is the thing that's tacked on, but the storyline plays out somewhat believably in the context of high school social circles. The setting is occasionally used for humourous effect as well, as when these 'tough guys' eat cookies and drink milk, or talk about Tolkien. The characters are all cold and cynical, which I believe is in line with the genre, but they always hold your interest.
The storytelling in general is first rate; the vernacular can be a bit difficult to follow at times, but the writing is terrific and really flows once you get the hang of it. The film is visually very impressive, with a (surprisingly) bright and harsh look and with some very cool camera-work on display. All of the visual elements of the film are well designed, from the desolate outdoor locations to the spartan indoors, the vehicles, and the costumes, all of which contribute to the film's character and atmosphere. There's drama, suspense, intrigue, and even some raw action and Johnson handles all of these aspects with aplomb and without ever even remotely compromising the seriousness of the story. Also worth mentioning is the excellent and highly distinctive score by Nathan Johnson (Ryan's brother), which has a very melancholy feel to it.
Worthy of great praise is the cast, who are mostly lesser known actors. The entire group commit completely to the approach and play it straight and without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. Given the stoic characterization there isn't much emoting to be done, but the dialogue and its delivery could easily have come across as ludicrous were it not executed in a very particular manner. I was initially skeptical about Joseph Gorden-Levitt (of '3rd Rock From the Sun' fame), but he had me completely sold on his gritty gumshoe act after the first few scenes. The rest of the cast is equally good, particularly Nora Zehetner as the seductive Laura who is equal parts sweet and dangerous. Noah Fleiss's portrayal of Tugger with his apoplectic rage reminded me a bit of Russel Crowe in L.A. Confidential (probably because I saw it recently), and Lukas Haas was enigmatic and strangely sympathetic (for a drug lord!) as the Pin.
It ought to be apparent from the preceding paragraphs that I dug 'Brick' quite a bit. As just an exercise in style it's terrific, but it works overall as a film despite the ostensibly gimmicky setting. A film that's well worth watching, and one that stands as testimony to how far determined and talented filmmakers can go on a shoestring budget. I look forward to Johnson's next film, The Brothers Bloom, for which he has secured a mighty impressive cast. I'm also tempted to watch as many noir classics as I can (I haven't seen enough) to experience more of this particular style of storytelling.