Noir isn’t a genre that I know much about. I’ve seen some of the classics, but it isn’t something that I consider myself well-versed in. High school movies, on the other, I know quite a lot about. Brick is a movie that could have very easily walked the line between high school and noir. It could’ve been a dark murder-mystery, while also being a coming-of-age story that ends at a school dance or a big game. But Rian Johnson refuses to play by high school rules. Brick doesn’t have a single scene in a classroom. Its characters are students, and several scenes take place in the halls of school, but it's really easy to forget all of that. Yes, Brick is a high-school noir film, but it’s deeply noir and only nominally high-school.
The tone is established from the first shot—the body of a dead girl lying in a stream, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan Frye crouching nearby. The film tells the story of this body, following Brendan as he first tries to find his ex-girlfriend, leading him into the drug-based underworld of his high school in order to discover who was behind her death. It’s got all of the tropes of noir, but doesn’t ever seem like it’s falling into cliché. There’s a damsel in distress, a femme fatale, and a detective that’s been burned one too many times. But never does the film wink at the audience. It’s dead serious and dark black.
But just because it’s dark and serious doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun. Johnson writes Brendan with a quick wit that makes every line of dialogue fun to hear. “I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you,” he yells at a group of stoners who are attempting to threaten him. This fearlessness is a core quality of Brendan’s, whether he’s beating up a dealer to stir the pot, or taking a beating to prove a point. He also always knows what’s going on, whether or not Johnson has decided to keep the audience in the loop, and it only ever comes together at the end. Until then, all you can do is follow along and enjoy the ride.
Johnson, along with his production team, gives the film a great noir aesthetic without going all out. Take the costuming, for example. When you picture a noir detective, you expect them to be wearing a trench coat and a wide brim fedora. Brendan wears a baggy army jacket, with mop top hair that almost covers his eyes. It’s close enough to what a high-schooler would wear that it doesn’t break the fourth wall, but also recognizable enough that the moment you see him you know what his role will be. Every character is dressed like this, from the brainy sidekick wearing glasses and dressed in a stylish plaid, to the drama-club string puller always in her stage makeup. What they're wearing always makes sense for high-schoolers, but it makes even more sense for noir character archetypes.
Brick is an incredibly impressive debut for Rian Johnson, who would go on to make The Brothers Bloom and Looper, as well as some of the standout episodes of Breaking Bad. His understanding of tone, his cohesive style, and his intricate plotting are on display from the very start of his career, and grows with each film he makes. After the announcement of a new Star Wars trilogy with him at the helm, part of me is sad that his most productive years ahead will be spent in the same universe. I imagine he has dozens of different ideas, with new settings and characters. I’m mostly excited for it, though. If he can make high school into a gritty noir underworld, what can he do with my favorite galaxy far, far away?
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