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I have read all Raymond Chandler’s books, some of them several times, but if you asked me for a synopsis of any of them I think I’d be stumped. I can remember scenes (the stifling orchid house, the blanketed old man in the wheelchair) and dialogue (‘She’d make a jazzy weekend, but she’d be wearing for a steady diet’) but not the plot. This film has had rather the same effect: I watched the credits roll four hours ago, and already its plot is blurring at the edges.
It’s not surprising: Brick is a detective story, a film noir, an homage to films like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown and The Long Goodbye. A baffling plot and an incomprehensible lingo are therefore de rigueur, as is the clutch of archetypes: a washed-up corpse, a loner who plays detective, a mysterious beauty behind the wheel of a convertible, and a hired thug wearing a wifebeater’s vest. But where you’d expect to find a tired chief of police, meet the vice-principal. This film noir is set in a high school: instead of trenchcoats and fedoras we get jeans and a Rubik Cube.
Geeky-but-cool Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds his ex-girlfriend’s body on a concrete riverbed. She had telephoned him, afraid for her life, two days earlier. He had tried to save her but couldn’t. Brendan embarks on a quest — which borders on the pathological — to find out what happened. He dives into the drug-addled underbelly of his home town and is soon taking punches from every side. Each confrontation brings him another bruise, and an inch closer to the truth.
So if we’re in a sun-soaked Californian high school, how do we know it’s a film noir? Well, everyone (but for our detecting hero) smokes. Characters go by nicknames — ‘The Pin’, ‘Tugger’, ‘The Brain’. Club-footed drug-dealer The Pin (a brilliant Lukas Haas) dresses in black and walks with a cane, while his muscle wears white. Telephone calls are made and received in phone booths under street lamps. Folded pieces of paper, bearing mysterious pencilled messages, slip out of notebooks. Brendan throws a number of punches, and is punched in return — like Bogart he barely flinches. And the characters speak the language of the detective novel (cinema tickets will come with a glossary, apparently).
I do like the fact that, at a moment when film-makers seem generally to be aiming for documentary-style realism, Rian Johnson (who makes his writing/directing debut with Brick) has made a film which is anything but. It is a bold move to be so proudly self-conscious, to reference openly the character types, dialogue, camerawork and story structure of a genre which had its peak 60-odd years ago. Since a high proportion of Johnson’s target audience will be teenagers who might never have seen a black-and-white film, quite what they’ll make of the rapid-fire dialogue and outdated lingo I can’t imagine. He must be hoping they’ll find it impossibly cool.
And it is cool. Considering how much of its style is a copy — sorry, an homage — it does seem pretty original, or at the very least surprising. Its set pieces are beautifully executed: a chase on foot through the school grounds; a ‘duel’ in a carpark between Brendan and a black Mustang; and a tense stand-off between four key players at the mouth of a dark tunnel. It has startling, funny and brutal moments; sometimes it is all those things at once. It looks terrific and sounds even better. In pieces, it is a success.
But not as a whole. The characters are a shallow bunch, and when they ‘speak detective’ it only makes them harder to identify with. They are all too busy playing hard-boiled to be engaging, and even Brendan hides his pain so well that, although we admire him, we cannot love him. I don’t expect to love Philip Marlowe, but since this film is premised on a love story — Brendan is not hired to find Emily’s killer, he does it for the love of her — we need to see at least a hint of feeling. When we did, briefly, it came too late for me. In fact, the only moment which moved me was not Brendan’s but The Pin’s: sitting on the beach with his back turned, he tries to express a love (for reading Tolkien, of all things). Just that attempt was enough to ally me with him for the rest of the picture, despite his rotten deeds.
Early on, we see Brendan and his friend ‘The Brain’ — a sort of ‘Deep Throat’ of useful information — idly solve a Rubik Cube as they discuss potential leads. A Rubik Cube is only interesting while you’re trying to solve it; once solved, it’s just a paperweight. Brick is captivating, but not memorable.