Erik Jaccard explores the generic synthesis of film noir and high school dramas in Rian Johnson’s Brick…and makes your editors really want to watch Veronica Mars.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson
In starting, I would suggest that it is a remarkable achievement for a film to help us see a genre with fresh eyes. Because this doesn’t occur very frequently, it’s all the more surprising when we run face-first into something that seems refreshingly new. We emerge from a cinematic experience energized and enthusiastic, but not even totally conscious of what we’ve just experienced. All we know is that it was some new thing, or some old thing we’d seen a million times, but this time done differently. Unsure of the what or the why, or of how to think of this new thing properly, we can only stop and feel. ‘YES. That. More of that please.’
This is overly dramatic, but it’s also a fair approximation of how I felt after seeing Rian Johnson’s neo-noir high school drama Brick for the first time. It was June and I was living in Edinburgh, Scotland. I’d finished the coursework for my master’s degree, was living on borrowed money, and had nothing to do but spend the following four months writing my thesis. Quite naturally, I was doing everything but that. Instead, I was hanging out with friends, drinking in the sun, running and reading a lot. I was working a little, sure, but mostly I was enjoying the long Scottish summer days and reveling in notion that I didn’t have much to do except eventually try to say smart things about some books. So, with all of this time on my hands, I started not only going to movies on my own, but taking chances on the smaller, independent films I’d be less likely to convince my friends were worth seeing. And so, on a fine early summer evening I trotted down to one of Edinburgh’s most charming arthouse cinemas—The Cameo—and watched Brick. Later, I emerged into the listless purple dusk outside and stood there, feeling my freedom and smiling ear to ear at the cool new thing I’d just witnessed.
As any who have seen the film know, the central conceit behind Brick is the transposition of the hard-boiled detective story—think Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—into the context of a high school drama. On first viewing I found this idea to be very, very clever. In much the same way that I was bowled over by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’s novel fusion of science fiction and romantic comedy, Brick’s blurring of generic boundaries helped me see each component differently. On the one hand, by setting a noir storyline in a high school, Johnson’s film brings much-needed levity to a hard-boiled genre that too often retreats into superficial shadows and straight-faced genre clichés. At the time I’d forgotten just how funny hard-boiled detectives can be, and Brick, as I explain in more detail below, is actually a really funny film in a lot of ways. On the other hand, the ominous tone and subjective uncertainty of the noir thriller ironically illuminates some of the deeper recesses of the high-school flick’s often frivolous or basely comical rendering of teenage life. The best examples from the hard-boiled film noir canon crackle with visual and verbal ingenuity, and Brick, because it stays so true to the ethos of those earlier films, lends the tired high school drama both a new gravitas and also an electric, memorable verve.
Johnson notes in interviews that he’d been working on the idea for Brick since the late 1990s, but that he’d had trouble gaining traction with reticent studios understandably wary of taking on such a unique project from an unproven director. This probably makes sense, but then again, so does Johnson’s idea. For one, there’s a lot of exploitable overlap between character archetypes in the two genres: the wise-cracking, resolutely determined detective isn’t that far from the sarcastic social misfit giving the popular kids the fish-eye from across the cafeteria; the hard-working PI sidekick easily transitions into the diffident but resourceful nerd; the femme fatale is a differently drawn, and more mysterious version of the teenage drama queen, and so on. Second, the heavily stylized underworld argot of the detective narrative doesn’t seem that unnatural coming from the mouths of teenagers, who already speak in their own blurry and sometimes incomprehensible subcultural patois. Third, and this is a point I touched on long ago in my June 2011 re-view of The Fast and the Furious, both genres are inherently concerned with social dynamics, and particularly with codes of inclusion and exclusion. Just as detectives must operate in the seams between various social strata in order to determine the truth of their case, so, too, must the high school hero learn to navigate the various cliques and clubs—and the power dynamics which separate them—to determine the best route to achieving his or her goal. In doing so he or she often lays bare the unwritten rules and privileges by which some are elevated and others banished. Finally, and this might be the most obvious point, teenage life is full of both real and perceived drama, bickering, back-biting, deception, and betrayal—not unlike the detective story. Adult life contains its share of these things, too, but for teenagers it often seems like a much bigger deal, partly because the average teenager’s world is so small and partly because teens lack the maturity and perspective necessary to see their drama in context. As a result, the teenage years can often seem dark, frightening, and momentous, full of hidden motivations and secret dealings, insecurity and doubt, fragile alliances and naked power plays. (This is also, I believe, why the high school setting works so well a locus for Shakespearean tragedy.)
This is a long way of saying that in 2006 I found Brick to be a thoughtfully conceived, intelligent, and entertaining new take on established forms and that I enjoyed it all the more because it gave me the feels in all the ways I discuss above. While I’m not quite as invigorated ten years later—novelty does wear off, after all, to be replaced by newer novelties—I’m every bit as inclined to rank Brick among the better and more adventurous independent film projects of the 2000s. Watching it this time around I again appreciated its ambition, eagerness, and commitment, even when these qualities sometimes muddle the successful execution of the film’s larger premise. All in all, Brick stands the test of time, and for the next few pages I’ll attempt to explain why.
For those who haven’t seen the film, or haven’t seen it for ten years, here’s a brief precis of the plot. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a social misfit at his Southern California high school. He eats lunch every day by himself behind the school, weary of the world but unable to disengage from it completely. On day, his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin) calls him mysteriously and tells him she’s in big trouble and needs his help. Before she can explain fully, she’s cut off, leaving Brendan with only a handful of vague clues. A few days later Brendan finds Emily dead in a stone culvert which also doubles as a clandestine meeting spot for the area’s affluent, popular crowd. Determined to get to the bottom of what happened, Brendan starts tracking down her known acquaintances. He eventually ends up knee-deep in the school’s cultural underworld and must deal with a shady cast of characters of whom few, if any, can be trusted. There is the devious upper-crust femme fatale, Laura (Nora Zehetner), who at first seems only interested in helping; there is the tweaker burnout, Dode, who Brendan learns had been Emily’s most recent romantic attachment; and there is the vamp-vixen actress character, Kara, whose constant duplicity confounds Brendan’s quest for answers. These high-schoolers lead Brendan to the area’s local drug lord, ‘the Pin’ (Lukas Haas) and his truculent henchman, Tug. Through a fairly tense sequence of proverbial twists and turns, Brendan grows wise to the real culprit behind the murder and, ultimately, to the larger systems of power and perversion underlying Emily’s death.
Now, one of the things I noticed this time around was the way the film’s setting and aesthetic plays against and softens some of the moodier textures of the conventional noir film. One of the disturbing pleasures of the latter is a shadowy grittiness in tone, which in movies like Double Indemnity or Touch of Evil is produced in part by stark contrasts between light and dark, and also by a kind of visual claustrophobia of setting (bequeathed to the genre by German Expressionism). By contrast, Brick is relatively expansive and incandescent. While it certainly references noir’s cloistered aesthetic, it also undercuts it in refreshing ways. For one, Johnson chose to set the film in his hometown of San Clemente, California, a beachside community in southern Orange County. This, combined with the fact that teenagers are afforded very little private space of their own, means that much of the film takes place outside, and is predictably shot at wide angles capable of expressing the long expanses of blue sky, and the rectilinear parking lots, football fields, and well-lit outdoor hallways typical of the SoCal high school flick. Such moments expand the viewer’s perception of the characters because it widens the aperture in which their dramatic potential is understood. Unlike the earlier films, where lighting and setting work metaphorically to express an entropic sense of collapse or psychological pressure, Brick evokes the infinite and open-ended. For every shot of a gloomy lair or darkened culvert, there is a corresponding escape into open space which disrupts stock conventions of noir filmmaking. This makes a lot of sense when you think about it. Teenagers are notoriously moody, if not gloomy, but this gloom is motivated as much by fear and uncertainty about the open-ended future and about understanding who and what one is going to be when they get older. This time around it was clearer to me that Brick’s visual aesthetic carefully recalibrates noir conventions less to emphasize the beastly horror underneath consensus social life—the darkness ‘in here’—and more the terror of the unknown ‘out there.’
I was also struck this time by the film’s humor, which I definitely don’t remember noticing as much the first time. While Brick plays around with some of the hard-boiled tradition’s characteristic dark comedy—Brendan’s lippy office exchange with the Assistant Vice Principal is a great example of this—its comedy derives mostly from the ironic juxtaposition of conventional teen movie settings and scenarios with the deadpan seriousness of its noir plot. Consider: the hard-boiled noir film offers the viewer glimpses of danger and intrigue uncommon to ordinary lives. Indeed, the strangeness of the seedy worlds depicted and the grave nature of its criminal plots are part of the genre’s appeal. At the same time, the conventional teen movie is utterly ordered and ordinary. Even when teen movies depart from the status quo they often do so only to return to it later, perhaps with the balance of power shifted in favor of the protagonist. But in Brick these two registers co-exist and produce this gleeful estrangement of both noir and teen movie tropes that keeps you oscillating between tension and humor.
For example, in order to arrange a meeting with the film’s mysterious drug lord—‘the Pin’—Brendan must fight not a group of adult henchmen, but one of the school’s entitled ‘upper crust’ loudmouths in an afterschool parking lot. There’s the crime narrative element: Said loudmouth is one of the Pin’s primary dealers, so Brendan has to get through him to get to the Pin. But there’s also the teen movie trope: the clearly mismatched fight between scrappy loner and muscular jock, the former forcing social recognition by taking on its officially approved proxy. When the meeting finally happens, Brendan is driven to an ordinary suburban house, where the Pin’s mother (he lives with his parents) frets in the background about what kind of juice to offer the boys, seemingly unaware of the gravity of the conversation about to take place. Later on we see the Pin being driven around in a Chevy Astrovan (presumably also his parents’) with the back fitted as a model of his basement den. And even with daylight glaring through the windows, the Pin keeps his ominous lamp (complete with exotic shade), seemingly for dramatic effect. The scene draws the noir-esque imagery out to such an extent that we can’t help but laugh at it, literally exposed by the light of day as a kind of staged farce. This wouldn’t work if the film didn’t fully commit to both of its component genres, but thankfully it does. The actors play their parts with such deadly seriousness that you often forget that what you’re watching is actually really silly.
My favorite comic moment is the following exchange between Brendan and the Pin on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier. Having exhausted their shop talk, the two sit down, Brendan obediently behind the boss. The Pin speaks first:
“You read Tolkien?”
“You know, The Hobbit books?”
“His descriptions of stuff are really good. Makes you wanna be there.”
Now, we like to think of our crime-movie villains as having some kind of villainous panache, whether that be intellectual or physical, or even sexual. We’re used to them having something that sets them apart, something to lend legitimacy to their power—even if it’s something horrible, like their willingness to dip victims in corrosive acid. But in this scene everything we know about the Pin’s noir archetype (noirchetype?) is so humanized that it becomes impossible not to see him as an unconfident boy attempting to bully others in his own little corner of the playground. Silhouetted against the setting sun, having a moment on the beach with his new bro, he spouts a line that sounds like the limp crescendo to a really bad paragraph in a freshman English paper. Maybe I laughed because I’m a person who sometimes has to grade bad English papers. However, I also just stopped and thought What? You can’t say that! You’re a mysterious urban myth, a veritable enigma of the streets! In no conceivable universe does a tough as nails noir gangster say “His descriptions and stuff are really good. Makes you wanna be there.” It drains all stylistic menace out of the scene and, for just a moment, you see the humans in front of you as vulnerable, uncertain people rather than narrative archetypes.
There is, then, a lot of poignancy to the film’s humor, too. I couldn’t help but picture the end of Big, when Tom Hanks shrinks backs down to his teenage self and we see a shy boy walking down the street in a man’s suit. For the majority of that film the point is to laugh at the magical premise of a boy being transported into a man’s body and then doing childish things in adult form. We feel for him when he’s afraid, alone in the city, crying for his mother, and we delight in his playfulness and creativity in a world full of practically minded adults. We laugh because he’s so out of place, and because it’s a comedy the film nudges us to take this slapstick contrast as the primary point. Yet, there’s a darker irony here, too, and it’s produced by the nagging feeling that Josh is not, actually, that out of place. In fact, as he moves through the corridors of corporate power in New York we come to learn that he is surrounded by a variety of teenage archetypes living in the guise of adults. There’s the jaded popular girl, tired of all the stuff-shirted boys fluttering their feathers around her; there’s the older protector-figure, acclimated to the unforgiving nature of his world, yet willing to take a chance on the underdog; and there’s the aggressive bully, attempting to gain power and influence over others, no matter the cost. These, too, are kids wearing grown-up clothes, just as real-life gangsters, CEOs, and politicians are versions of other playground archetypes whom we’ve convinced ourselves are somehow different or more important because they’ve achieved adulthood. When a child collects all the blocks in one corner of the room we assume he or she is doing it because they haven’t learned to share; when adults do it, it’s because they’re talented, or strategic, or intelligent. Now, after that lengthy digression, here’s the point. The first time I saw Brick I marveled at the humor in people doing grown up things in kids’ bodies; this time I saw it the other way round, as all the grown-ups in my world continuing to do kid things, but convincing themselves it was something else. It isn’t as much that the Pin is a kid acting like a grown-up, though that is literally true, but rather that all the other big-shots are grown-ups who have convinced others their childish behavior is mature, and thus worthy of respect.
If it seems like I’m using the film to talk indirectly about class, it’s because my next point is about class. Watching Brick for this re-view, I kept seeing class dynamics pop up where I’d previously missed them. After thinking about this for a bit, I decided this was because I’d received the film in terms passed down to me by secondary interpretations of the film noir as a genre. For example, when I watched it the first time I was aware that the genre was more often than not interpreted in the psychoanalytic language of unconscious anxieties and desires, and that it thus foregrounded crises of sexuality and gender, and particularly female representation. To this point both of these hypotheses have generally made sense to me, given the genre’s emphasis on dark spaces, damaged anti-hero men, and the infamous and ubiquitous archetype of the femme fatale. To be sure, Brick features all of these things, and one could not be blamed for interpreting the film in light of these concerns. Yet, this time I kept coming back to class. So I did some light background research and eventually came across Dennis Broe’s Film Noir, American Workers, and Postwar Hollywood (2009), which provides an alternate reading of the conditions of emergence for the genre. Contra conventional academic readings of noir, Broe situates the genre in the historical context of postwar labor unrest, the politicization of Hollywood, increasing corporatization, and middle-class anxiety. In sum, he argues that the genre, at least for a brief period between 1945-1950, was a vehicle for the expression of leftist political values and oppositional artistic energies. Rather than see the male protagonist of the noir film as expressive of a masculinity in crisis (though it seems to me difficult to abandon this idea completely), he views him in terms of class struggle. I haven’t watched enough classic film noir to either confirm or refute this reading, but its suggestiveness led me back to Brick, a film whose teen movie element more consistently drives the class element to the fore.
We’d probably all agree that the teen movie, whatever its sub-classification, often foregrounds social stratification, and that this representation often stands as a metonym for the society at large. The allure of the popular kid is, much as in real life, often linked directly to an obvious affluence, and it is in contrast to this ‘upper crust’ element that the teen film’s protagonist is called to define him or herself (at least initially). Class anxiety is thus coded into the architecture of the genre and a character’s ability to succeed often depends on his or her awareness of social fault lines. Film noir, if we accept Broe’s claim, most often expresses this tension symbolically. Brick, however, because it so consciously blends its noir element into the teenage landscape, can’t help but illuminate it.
The various social strata of Brick’s high school environment are, just like adult manifestations of social exclusion, defined by different ‘worlds’ (as Emily reminds him, “I’m in a different world now and you can’t keep me out of it”). To cross from one to the other is to violate the informal codes of inclusion and exclusion which regulate boundaries and keep the privileged and the undesirable from mixing. The teen movie most often takes such rules for granted, even if it ultimately works to subvert them in a moralistic inversion of real-world outcomes. Because it is a teen movie, so does Brick, at least superficially. For example, we can glimpse the firm class boundaries in both scenes where Brendan is interrogated by the school’s resident braggart, Brad Bramish, who questions why the former is hanging around spaces where he clearly ‘doesn’t belong’ (i.e. around the rich kids). Because it is a noir film, however, it also forces to the fore a protagonist who exists outside the social spectrum and who, no matter what crime he is tasked with solving, also serves to expose the complex machinations by which social order is reproduced. This is, of course, not what Brendan consciously sets out to do. His main order of business is first to help, and then to avenge Emily, whose fatal mistake is to naively assume social mobility is possible. This hope blinds her to her own instrumentalization at the hands of the wealthy and mysterious Laura and ultimately leads to her death, thus setting Brendan in motion and turning the orderly social universe of the film on its head.
The film’s class awareness is bound up with its cynicism, which is one way in which it really does mimic the emotional morass of the classic film noir. The smartest and most successful characters are those who are aware that they are multi-purpose parts in a larger class system of which most are unaware. While this system cannot be controlled, it can be manipulated for gain. Those who lose in the film are the ones, like Emily, or her tweaker boyfriend, Dode, who hold out hope that a moral resolution is possible, that love or good or justice will prevail. The film’s primary characters (i.e. the ones that don’t die) recognize that this hope is illusory, that they can either reject the system and face lonely exile (like Brendan) or game it at the expense of others. True to noir form, the latter condition is most aptly characterized the film’s two femme fatales, but particularly by Kara, the vamp-chameleon archetype.
I found Kara fascinating this time, because of how clearly the film wants us to see her as perhaps the most socially conscious of all its characters. Never shown outside of a theater setting (and always in various costumes), Kara understands that not only her success, but also her survival, depends on a willingness to play a variety of roles. In traditional reading of film noir Kara would be the protean female whose ability to perform multipole identities exposes the internal schisms at the heart of the male protagonist’s seemingly stable masculine self. Working within this paradigm, Brendan’s ritual disrobing of her near the film’s end would mark the return to normalcy; in stripping her down to her female body, he deprives her of the ability to tell the lie to his own performative masculine identity.
I focused in this scene on the moment when Brendan smashes the mirror over Kara’s head. We hear the glass shatter and then the shot pans up to reveal Kara, in full kabuki makeup, starting grimly upward against the shattered mirror. If we see the mirror as representative of Kara’s power to reflect to the world the identity she wishes it to see, then Brendan’s destruction of it would seem to shatter (sorry, bad pun) and reveal the core identity beneath the surface. Yet, what we see is what is behind most mirrors: nothing. This is where things got a little dark for me, because, as I noted above, while Kara is cynical, she is also intelligent. She has learned how to play a game she’s destined to lose by mimicking the means by which it sustains itself. We’re taught to play roles and we play them. In high school these roles have complex social determinants, but they often revolve, consciously or unconsciously, around class. Kara knows this, which is why she’s not entirely disingenuous when she coyly asks Brendan whether he really wants to know what he thought he wanted to know: There is nothing behind the glass. No redemption is possible for Brendan or Emily, for the Pin or his poor, musclebound hamster henchman, Tug. There will be no redemption for Laura or her victims. The authorities will do their thing and order will be restored superficially, but only at the cost or re-obscuring the more fundamental social issues the teen movie papers over in the name of entertainment. To say any or all of this is not to say that I reject earlier readings of film noir that Brick is doing the genre a disservice by opening it up to an analysis of this kind. In fact, I think this fresh emphasis on class is one of the things that makes the film more interesting than most stock in trade entries into the tradition. Had Johnson not chosen to do something different, we probably would have been left with a very good film working a very familiar premise to moderately successful ends. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as memorable, exciting, or intellectually stimulating.