Sunday, January 5, 2014
Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)
Brick is a most peculiar film, pairing the hardboiled plot and dialogue of a classical noir detective story with a contemporary high school setting and students as the main characters. The film does not appear intended as a parody in any way. Writer and director Rian Johnson plays it completely straight. The film and its characters exhibit zero self-awareness that they are out-of-place, out-of-time, or out-of-character. Get over the high school trappings, and Brick plays extremely true to genre as a hardboiled crime drama. It begins as a murder mystery that pulls its gumshoe protagonist ever deeper into a labyrinthine plot full of false leads, femme fatales, agitated tough guys, whispered names of men in the shadows, warnings and then threats to back off at every turn, and where everybody seems to harbor their own ominous secrets and ulterior motives.
That said, it's not easy to keep a completely straight face when confronted with such dissonance in the characters versus the things they say and the way they say them. There is something absurd, after all, about a cynical high school detective asking around about whom the victim ate lunch with. Or about the kingpin of a California drug ring being a white suburbanite teenager who has his mom providing snacks while he discusses business. Or about dialogue like "If I get caught like that, it's curtains anyway; I couldn't have brass cutting me favors in public. I'm just saying now so you don't come kicking in my homeroom door once trouble starts." The most ridiculous moment in the movie has to be that meeting between the protagonist and the vice principal, where the vice principal basically plays the part of the self-serving police chief who tries to shut down the private investigation. Up to that point, you can kind of read the movie not as what literally transpires at this high school, but rather how their self-important adolescent imaginations magnify and dramatize things.
Along those lines, it's easy enough to picture Brick as not only a production that real high schoolers could have made, what with its clearly minuscule budget (professional twenty-something actors posing as teenagers notwithstanding), but actually exactly the sort of movie that young film enthusiasts of limited means but tremendous passion would make—something exhibiting great admiration for classic craft and impeccable attention to screenwriting and cinematography, and missing only production values for things like costuming and set design.
In my experience, however, most adolescent-penned narratives don't even include adults, and the self-aggrandizing teenage daydreams tend to deflate the moment an actual grown-up intrudes. So it's a bit much, in this movie, for the vice principal to be role-playing along with whatever weird game these high schoolers are carrying on. But then I thought about it a bit more, and, well, isn't that police chief character typically kind of ridiculous even in the most conventional examples of hardboiled detective stories? I mean, it's never a character that the protagonist or the audience is seriously meant to respect, but only a minor annoyance that the detective must outwit and manipulate to his own ends. So maybe it doesn't matter that the scene is slightly absurd.
Indeed, Brick is peculiar, in large part, for all the ways it is conventional, rather than for the ways it isn't. I can't say I've ever been a huge fan of the genre, but, from what I've seen, hardboiled fiction is inherently bizarre. The actual investigation is almost impossible to follow, and even when the answers are revealed, you're not sure if any of it really adds up. A lot of the action is cerebral rather than tangible, and the protagonist's most unsettling obstacle tends to be his own self-menacing interior monologue. The story is ostensibly set in the real world, but it's so dark and enigmatic that it always seems just one step removed from there being some Cthulhu lurking in the shadows.
A movie like this is ultimately one that you appreciate for the atmosphere it builds, rather than for the story it tells. Going back to what I mentioned earlier about how adolescents like to imagine their lives as being much weightier, much more intense, much more dangerous than they really are, those fantasies are perhaps even informed by movies like this. After all, what could be more "adult" (not in the porno sense, but in the "adolescent's romanticized notion of adulthood" sense) than a cynical detective story? These things deliver extremely heightened senses of tension and of danger, all the while being, beneath the surface, completely illogical, completely incomprehensible, and completely insubstantial. So maybe Brick really does attempt something quite clever in layering a hardboiled narrative over a story starring adolescent characters.