Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt
Film noir is a great genre, but it’s almost impossible to make a “pure” noir in this day and age. The current culture is too ironic, too self-consciously cool for the brutal sincerity in which noir is rooted. Brick is a film that fully embraces its artificiality and plays it for all its worth, making the style as important as the plot. The film is highly entertaining and delightfully well-plotted but that overt self-awareness also makes it less weighty than it might otherwise have been.
The film is set in modern-day southern California, but the dialogue, the attitude, the archetypes, are straight from the classic noir of the 40s. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is, for lack of a better term, the hero, the guy who puts the pieces together and whose tough exterior masks the wounds of lost love. That love is Emily (Emilie de Ravin), an ex-girlfriend who gets caught up in a situation she can’t handle and goes to him for help – but too late. He finds her dead and is haunted by the things she told him, information imparted in a code he doesn’t quite understand. To get to the bottom of things he employs the help of a character known simply as “The Brain” (Matt O’Leary), who seems to be able to insert himself into any loop to get enough information for Brendan to build on.
Along his travels, Brendan encounters a number of characters familiar to the genre: Laura (Nora Zehetner), the femme fatale who might be there to help him but might also be the root of all evil, Tugger (Noah Fleiss), the heavy who's lucky he has a gun because his brain sure wouldn’t see him through, and The Pin (Lukas Haas), the slightly effete source of all the trouble. What Brendan discovers as he interacts with these characters isn’t really the point. Plot has never been the raison d’etre of any noir, though a great deal of effort is put into making grand, twisting narratives. Noir is about atmosphere, about carrying the audience along on mood and dialogue so that they effectively forget about the plot. A successful noir isn’t one that can be followed, but one that can be felt and if you notice a plot hole while you’re watching it, then it’s not doing its job.
Written and directed by Rian Johnson, who obviously has great familiarity with and appreciation for the genre, Brick is a successful example of style but not a particularly resonant film. The technique of using old school dialogue in a modern setting creates a distance between the film and the audience that cannot be overcome so that we don’t really care what becomes of the characters because we don’t really believe in them. Their fate is meaningless because their existence is so overtly artificial and nothing that they do, or fail to do, matters because they’re just part of a larger game being played by the film.
The film is well-written and Johnson is fortunate in the players he was able to cast, all of whom seem comfortable enough with the dialogue and style not to get lost in it. The standout, as is so often the case, is Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an actor who has spent the better part of the last decade making consistently interesting choices and will hopefully continue to do so. He will also, hopefully, start to get some significant recognition for his considerable talent.