Perhaps the freshest take on the genre since Reservoir Dogs, first-time director Rian Johnson sets a hard-boiled thriller in the dappled light of a Southern California high school. Judging from the concept alone, Brick shouldn't work at all: unconvincing teenagers trade tough-guy talk and weird clues accumulate faster than in Twin Peaks. That the whole enterprise doesn't just seem like an especially laughable episode of Veronica Mars is entirely to the credit of Rian Johnson's assured direction and the unique atmosphere he creates by filtering tepid suburban life through his movie-drenched imagination.
Brick's stoic gumshoe is Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a teenager with shaggy hair, glasses, and an increasingly punched-up face. With the help of his Rubik's Cube-obssessed friend The Brain (Matt O'Leary), Brendan goes sleuthing to find out who killed his ex-girlfriend Laura (Nora Zehetner.) He meets drug kingpins who lean on ostentatious canes, mysterious dames in red dresses, engine-revving goons, an entire underworld of noir stock characters--except, nobody is old enough to legally buy a drink. Even before we've been properly introduced to anybody, enough leads and red herrings pile up to make Philip Marlowe's head spin. In fact, you've already found the first clue to Laura's death just by reading the movie's title, and the poster hides a few more. To tell you anything else would be to ruin the fun.
The dialogue deserves its own paragraph. Along with the excellent, moody cinematography, the peculiar talk is what gives Brick its sense of heightened reality. Nobody here sounds like a real person, and the teenagers are purposefully unconvincing, rattling off witty repartee like they're channeling Bogart (which, of course, they are.) "I got all five senses and I slept last night; that puts me up six on the lot of you." If I'd tried that on a gang of bullies when I was Brendan's age, I wouldn't been sitting here writing this review. Quentin Tarantino put a spin on the crime genre by having his gangsters jabber about trivia like the true meaning of Madonna songs and fast food in France. Rian Johnson uses the carefully scripted talk of 1940s films, but he puts it into the mouths of people who are usually trivialized in the movies.
Sure, in the final analysis, the plot of Brick isn't anything you haven't seen before. But it's never been done quite like this, and a fresh spin on an old formula is all anybody could possibly hope for from a genre that's been milked as dry as the detective film. When I turn over Brick in my mind, it's not the plot I think about, it's the image of Brendan, standing fearlessly in a sunny parking lot as he is getting sucked into a dangerous world he doesn't understand yet. Rian Johnson claims The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep as his main influences, but I also taste Blue Velvet and a dash of Napoleon Dynamite in the mix. The mood of Brick is rich with contradictions, bright and gloomy at once. Youthful confidence and nameless fears fight for preeminence, and suddenly you realize that this stylized world isn't what being a teenager was like at all--but it's what it felt like.