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Brick | Review

From Old school to High School

Johnson crafts teenage neo noir fest avoids gimmick, evokes classic, but lacks punch.

While mustang skid marks in mall parking lots, high school football yards and mom’s basement with home-baked cookie bouquet don’t exactly scream out criminal underworld, every other element in Rian Johnson’s directorial debut brings out the aura of classic film noir tales. The low-budgeted Sundance entry Brick is a tasty rendition and homage (notice the wink to The Maltese Falcon) to a genre that is all but extinct, and should become the ideal calling card for a healthy career in the industry for the film’s creator.

Beat up, bloodstained and sleepless, the story’s anti-hero (played in the somewhat scrawny frame of Joseph Gordon-Levitt) avenges the departure his former girlfriend in the best manner he knows how – search every corner, turn over every leaf, every note and every clue. Fun with props and locations can make for some interesting heady work for viewers, but while the clothes look slacker-ish it is the calibrated dialogue that will win fans of the genre over. The narrative trajectory, the film’s tone and the wealth of shady characters makes for an enjoyable whodunit, but the tedious storyline and slowed-pacing demands that its viewers keep score by actually using their noggin or by physically sitting up in their seats to keep afloat.

The signifiers of the genre are present. The laundry list includes the “MacGuffin”, one that references the film’s title. Then there is the litter of femme fatales played by young unknown actresses who all seem to get the gist of what the film storyline needed in terms of deceitful women with their own agendas. The same goes for the young male actors who fall into the categories of informants, kingpin and thug roles. The narrative contains the traditional double crosses and triple crosses but this isn’t exactly Bogart, instead this is closer in style to young adult meets grown-up world’s as recently visited in Tim Blake Nelson’s O and Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet. Perhaps this explains why the comical element that juxtaposes with the serious criminal part makes the film feel a tad too much like a high school play. Basically from viewer’s point of view – there is a triage to be made between scenes that make perfect sense to plot and scenes that don’t fully embrace what the characters motivations and reactions should be.

There is an admirable quality to the film, Johnson’s direction is certainly felt in the construction of each scene and while the film may be lacking in look, with only a couple of interesting 180 degree panning motions, he makes the most out of low budget aesthetics, with interesting camera angles and play with color tones. However, what lacks here to make the perfect trifecta is a meanness and darkness – and its not simply a question of trading the protagonist’s eye-glasses and unkept hair for a pointed hat and shades, but adding more style in the character of the film instead of adding to the elaborate construction of it. Bricks’ middle act is problematic lack of juice but thankfully the final act brings in all in with backstabbing admissions, but perhaps the film remains far too close to its Southern California personality – looks good on the outside, not as interesting on the inside.

Rating 3 stars

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Eric Lavallée is the founder, CEO, editor-in-chief, film journalist, and critic at IONCINEMA.com, established in 2000. A regular at Sundance, Cannes, and Venice, Eric holds a BFA in film studies from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema. In 2013, he served on the narrative competition jury at the SXSW Film Festival. He was an associate producer on Mark Jackson’s "This Teacher" (2018 LA Film Festival, 2018 BFI London). In 2022, he was a New Flesh Juror for Best First Feature at the Fantasia International Film Festival. Current top films for 2023 include The Zone of Interest (Glazer), Inside the Yellow Cocoon Shell (Pham Thien An), Totem (Lila Avilés), La Chimera (Alice Rohrwacher), All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt (Raven Jackson).

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