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?
A close look at 5 of the legendary and prolific actor’s very best performances.
2018 was not only a great years for movies, it was a great year for diverse voices in film.
Aaron offers up his favorite films of 2018, both foreign and domestic.
Rachael lists her top 11 films of 2018, and some honorable mentions!
Matt chooses his favorite films of 2018.
Superheroes, Nicolas Cage, and a bear! Oh my! It’s Harrison’s favorites of ‘18!
From middle-school to the moon, Callie picks her favorite movies of the year.
2018 was a landmark year for representation in film, and the best ensembles of the year reflect that.
It’s been an incredible year for movies, as proof, here’s a list.
Marcus selects what he considers to be the best TV from 2018.
Marcus and Harrison select the very best movie posters 2018 had to offer.
David describes how a holiday classic is an important tradition at his home.
The rare remake that transcends the original in every way, Kaufman’s Body Snatchers is one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made.
This charming romantic-comedy is not your traditional Christmas film, but has become a holiday classic nonetheless.
Today, Cuarón’s brilliantly made tale of hope in times of despair feels more relevant and needed than ever.
A holiday weekend with the family ends up with more wild drama and comedy as you’d expect.
The Dickens adaptation is a classic case of style over substance, but, oh, what style!
Cuarón’s first English language film is a ravishing and optimistic celebration of childhood imagination.
Going through two decades of Sony’s franchise-building trials and tribulations.
A modern classic that uses sex comedy trappings to explore deep and personal themes.
Tyler Heberle makes his TFS debut with a deep dive into the work of Debra Granik
Rock icon David Byrne’s lone directorial effort is a unique humanist delight that is worth seeking out.
Ryan Coogler’s film is just as powerful as the one that began the Rocky series 40 years earlier.
On how the sequel is all about the American Dream, for better and worse.
This often derided installment of the Rocky Balboa saga has more to offer than its reputation suggests.
Writer-director Stallone sacrifices character for entertainment in the second sequel in the series.
The Oscar Best Picture winner remains an essential underdog story.
‘Minnesota nice’ is both skewered and praised in what might me the ultimate thesis statement of the Coens.
The Coens’ first screwball comedy ranks among their very best.
As the Coens explored the life of the mind, they created their most personal and terrifying film.