Rian Johnson’s new sci-fi movie, Looper, is quickly becoming a favourite of the year amongst critics. And with its popularity only growing, it’s worth going back and looking at Johnson’s debut – Brick, a neo-noir detective story that feels like The Maltese Falcon played out by the cast of The O.C.
When Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) gets a cryptic phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), he’s drawn into a murder mystery that sees him trawl through the dark and sordid underbelly of the American high school and its various cliques and factions.
It’s a bizarre-sounding premise at first, but after five minutes the genius of it is readily apparent. There’s something incredibly satisfying about watching teenagers circa 2006 spouting 40s slang like “dope-heads” and “bulls”, and Johnson’s script crackles with incredibly dry wit – at one point, after a lengthy exchange with a jock whose only answer is “Yeah?”, Brendan suggests he go and look it up in a thesaurus under ‘Y’.
The plot is well-written and intelligent, with plot twists around every corner to keep the mystery fresh. It may be slightly difficult to get a handle on at first, but after the first half hour it becomes easier to keep up with the breakneck speed, and the final moments are a masterclass in misdirection.
It also works thanks to a fantastic central performance from Joseph Gordon-Levitt; it’s easy to see he was cast in Looper. He takes a kind of masochistic pleasure in spitting every one of his sour lines, but Brendan is never made unlikeable. As he takes more and more of a beating through the course of the film, his pain (both physical and mental) is brilliantly portrayed without ever becoming maudlin or cheesy.
The supporting cast are admirable too. Nora Zethner is fantastic as Laura, the femme fatale of California, and Richard Roundtree has an ingenious scene as the Assistant Vice Principal, laying into Brendan like a police chief lays into a brilliant but unstable detective. “See you at the parent conference” was another fantastic line.
The other thing that makes Brick so good is Johnson’s stunning use of old-school cinematography – the halls of the high-school become the mean streets of the city, with the same kind of huge, wide shots and quick cuts that one could find in a dozen examples of film noir. Everyone is easily identified by their shoes, and Brendan walks hunched into himself while maudlin piano music fills the air.
But it never descends into parody; Johnson isn’t doing a Bugsy Malone by playing up the youth of his cast, nor does he ever mock the fantastical elements of his plot. He takes the elements of film noir that really work, and plays them dead serious.
And that’s why this is such a brilliant piece of cinema. By playing it serious and showing deference to the genre, Johnson allows us to see Brick for what it is; a classic, hard-boiled detective story with an angle that’s brilliantly fresh, utterly original and absolutely ingenious.