I watched Brick during the height of my intellectual dirtbag youth, the summer a bunch of my friends and I stuck around our tiny college campus over vacation. During the day we worked for museums, professors, and shabby theatre companies, and at night we would bust into empty classrooms and sprawl around on the desks watching movies on the A/V equipment. I don’t know why, but most often we would end up in the psychology building, with its exposed pipes and brick walls and big black windows that flickered back at the projection screen. That summer we were all living our best lazy smart-ass lives, and we were profoundly into Brick.
He wears a shapeless jacket in trenchcoat-tan. He is a rogue agent, but valuable to the vice principal’s office. He is every grim detective on the shelf and in your DVR, only this one has a locker.
She wears red and steps neatly over glass-cupped flames in her high heels. She is our homeroom femme fatale. “Keep up with me now,” she dares, sweetly. She’s cooler than you, this movie is cooler than you, but she believes you can keep up.
Keep up, now.
“What is the audience for this movie?” Roger Ebert once asked. “Are teenage moviegoers familiar with movies like The Maltese Falcon? Do they know who Humphrey Bogart was? It is carrying on in its own lifetime a style of film that was dead before it was born.”
Not dead, Mr. Ebert; cool does not die. Everyone knows noir. It’s inherited, instinctive, the same way we know that “all you need for a movie is a gun and a girl.” Had I known that Jean-Luc Godard line back then, I definitely would have dropped it in that nighttime classroom. A reference like that would have killed.
Director Rian Johnson originally planned to make a classic hard-boiled American detective movie, but didn’t want his film to be a forgettable copy of the Dashiell Hammett stories he loved. Fresh out of film school, Johnson stripped away the genre’s usual fedoras and dark city streets, and when he layered conventional noir archetypes over contemporary high school characters, everything slid right into place. “Alienation is at the heart of the noir condition,” wrote Imogen Sara Smith, “people can’t be trusted; all relationships are vulnerable to be betrayed”. Well, if that isn’t just like high school. A social maze of alliances and shifting loyalties, of teenagers trying on tropes, forging their identities within the canon of characters, establishing patterns of belonging through stylized and coded speech.
It’s a noir, but don’t worry — if you’ve been to high school, you can keep up. We learned noir before we even learned algebra.
In college, they taught us how to deconstruct. We learned to unpack and analyze. We learned how to mark a reference from fifty paces under a high sun. In short, we learned how to be insufferable to watch movies with. But if you want a pack of over-educated, sun-drunk (and actually-drunk) 20-year-olds to really enjoy a film, give them a study in genres. Injecting an old classic story structure with some contemporary settings and fixations will appeal to their sense of themselves as very smart, as well as their desire to break stuff. As author Angela Carter worded it: “I’m all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode”.
The young like smashing things up and watching them shatter, becoming something sharp-edged and new.
Brendan drags down the front of his jacket with his balled up fists. Brendan hunches his shoulders against the world. Brendan slings himself sudden and fierce onto his enemies. Brendan pulls himself up to take another hit. Brendan bleeds here. Brendan bleeds there. Brendan runs pell-mell into blackness without so much as a by-your-leave, without a flinch.
Brendan only shakes once the speeding car has screamed past his fingertips.
Brick is interesting in that it’s mostly played straight. The genres of noir and high school align so neatly that it’s as if the tension has to manifest itself somewhere else: in the body of our teenage detective, Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). His body is what is flung. His body is what cracks into pretty pieces.
I read several profiles of Joseph Gordon-Levitt looking for a line I was sure existed: “Gordon-Levitt is sought out by directors for his willingness to literally throw himself into his roles.” I found iterations of that thought everywhere. I also found him doing back-flips for an interviewer on a playing field, and the time he hosted Saturday Night Live and did an entire routine to “Make ‘Em Laugh,” running up walls and taking fall after fall.
Gordon-Levitt acts with his whole frame, his physicality utter and fearless. He has a willingness to get knocked about in order to put on a good show. There is something old-fashioned about it, coming through clearest in the Classic Hollywood showmanship of that Donald O’Connor homage. It’s a quality I’ve always respected in actors, and Gordon-Levitt has it in spades — this deep understanding of how his body works, of what his body looks like.
Brendan has a bone structure you could cut yourself on, and a lot of people try.
He turns it on, quick and sharp. Grins, tilts his chin up. Brendan learned early on how to turn disadvantage to advantage. He is slim, sloe-eyed, his throat long and pretty. Epicene, threatening. Dial it up, make men snap at him, with their teeth. That fault-line, that’s the opening he needs. Then he leaps.
Brendan needs to see The Pin, the drug lord kingpin of his town, and has paid his way with his bruises. A thug named Tug takes him there in his trunk, into the heart of suburbia — into the house that Lynch built.
Brick owes a lot to David Lynch, almost as much as it owes to every hard-boiled noir and every teen drama played out among linoleum hallways. Something you learn to do well as a young dirtbag intellectual is talk about things you don’t actually know much about. (“Ask everyone to show their hands, and you got a crowd full of pockets.”) Watching Brick for the first time that summer, I hadn’t seen any of Lynch’s work before, and his particular brand of weirdness was something I didn’t even know how to posture an opinion on. I didn’t yet have a name for this surreal unease creeping along the edges of an American living room.
Johnson’s film is noir, and it’s high school, and it’s Lynchian—and the strain of holding all these genres in harmony eventually starts to match the strain in Brendan’s shoulders. He is not doing well. Somewhere between his fourth fight and the hit man with a knife, he develops a hacking cough, a terrible gasping thing that rips through him head to toe. His breathing labors alongside the increasingly bogged-down plot.
This is that point in a murder mystery where the web of manipulations and betrayals and secret accords has thickened to the point of near opacity, and you think you might have lost the thread. Your attention scales down to closer, more immediate problems — like getting this boy some medical attention. It is unclear if Brendan, or Brick, can keep going at this pace for very much longer.
Juttering edits fracture the scene.
Brendan is breaking, collapsing in the parking lot. Frames drop, skip, jolt. Our grasp of narrative and time is slipping, slipping with Brendan’s leather shoes on the curb.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that today’s youth still identify with film noir. There’s the timeless cool, sure, the allure of the dangerous dames and whip-smart P.I.s — but that’s the melody on top of a more resonant hum: the alienation, the loneliness, the dark side of the American dream of self-reliance. During my sophomore year, my college brought in a speaker to talk to us about the cult of “effortless perfection,” that insidious pressure to present yourself as someone who has it all together, who isn’t struggling, who isn’t vulnerable. We’re so used to the performance, to the mask. Don’t let anyone see the cracks.
In Brick, Brendan, like a good young Bogart, presents a steely front. He is daring and passionate, but he carefully maintains his unflappable edge. He keeps his tone dry and level, his smooth face still. His mask is very good. We can see an ideal in him.
Maybe that’s why my friends and I found something so affecting about how visible his injuries become. Cathartic, even. It’s one thing to acquire limps and cuts after fights, but the cough’s origins are more mysterious. It’s unclear what might have caused it, and in some ways it seems just a painfully physical representation of how much stress Brendan is under. He is dealing with so much—drug ring politics and Accelerated English and ex-girlfriends and murders—and he’s doing it alone, and yeah, it fucking hurts.
Brendan is bent double, coughs rattling out of his ribs, but with long shaky steps he keeps pushing forward, no matter how much is slung on his shoulders.
He sleeps briefly in a borrowed bed, and the relief feels stolen.
As the film nears its end, Brendan stands almost steadily on a football field, shadows hollowing his eyes like the bruise on his cheek, but mask in place as he tells us what has happened. Storytelling can be a mask too, if you use it right. He stands and tells it, the whole tale, and then still he stands as the few remaining characters walk away, to follow their own fates off-screen.
There are crimson cracks across his nose and lip, and we watch, hoping, for the mask to slip.
He goes to leave, he turns his back —
Would you end a noir with anything else than a cut to black?