Brick is a hard-boiled neo-noir set in John Hughes’s favorite setting, an American high school. Joseph Gordon Levitt plays Brendan, a high schooler who is investigating the disappearance and later murder of ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). The dialogue is straight out of a Bogart movie, but Rian Johnson somehow makes it work without it coming across comical or ironic; instead, it is a sincere recreation of a classic genre that holds up very well.
Brendan, like most hard-boiled PI’s, is a cynic and a loner. He doesn’t have friends but, instead, associates who help him or he forces to help him. He is willing to get violent when necessary, beating the information he needs out of low-life Dode (Noah Segan), a stoner and Em’s friend. The setting of the movie sets it apart from other film noirs and makes the audience examine characters in a different light. I find this particularly apparent in Brendan, Dode, Emily, and the Pin (Lukas Haas). Brendan’s willingness to get violent, as well as manipulate others to further his agenda, shrouds his supposed heroism in shadow. His violence towards women is noticeable and seems to be an extension of classic film noir tropes. I see Dode in a different light; although he is a low-life stoner, he has sympathy for Emily, and unlike Brendan, seems to legitimately care about her. Brendan wants to have her and control her; we see and hear that in flashbacks and voice-overs after he turned over another student to prove his love for Emily.
The movie does feature a typical femme fatale in the form of Laura (Nora Zehetner), but with Emily, all we see is a tragedy. We see at the beginning of the film her fate is sealed in death. Everyone is out to use or control Emily. When we see her talking to Brendan, we can tell that she is just a lost person who needs help, but everyone is using her to meet their own goals. Brendan claims he cares about her but, his care for her is driven by his desire and ego. He is not trying to do what is right for her but rather what is desirable for himself.
The Pin is also an interesting character; he is a nerdy, goth, Tolkien-nerd exploiting the drug dependency of the high school youth. He is not a muscle that comes in the form of his sidekick/henchman Tugger, played by Noah Fleiss, who does an excellent job playing an unhinged guy driven by anger and testosterone. The Pin is a small, intelligent, and crippled man who uses his smarts to control and manipulate people. There is a moment between him and Brendan that stands out to me. They are walking down the beach talking about business, and they stop to sit down. The Pin randomly asks if Brendan likes J.R.R. Tolkien, Brendan is confused by the question. It is a rare moment where the dialogue and style seem to break from the tropes that Rian Johnson is playing with, and it makes The Pin a more human and relatable character who seems to want a real friend.
Brick is an excellent high school neo-noir. Johnson likes subverting and playing with the audience’s idea of genre and style, but this movie is never corny and the setting contrasted with the style makes the movie almost surreal.