Friday, 28 September 2012

Brick (2006, Rian Johnson)

Rian Johnson's debut Brick falls into a rare category of film for me, one I can neither get along with nor fully dismiss. Perhaps it's due to the clear talent on display that pulls for my respect, it is, after all, a skilfully assembled drama with an interesting concept. Brick's ambitions have certainly made for a polarised audience; some are impressed by it's odd nature of high school drama meets Dashiell Hammett detective story, either knowingly in context or not, while others merely find it a frustrating near unwatchable experience. I fall somewhere in between as I neither find it unwatchable or inspired but rather an interesting experiment; despite its industriousness and my strong will to accept it, I cannot, though there are plenty of aspects to appreciate.

Given a shoestring budget and this being his full first feature film, Rian Johnson showcases an assured visual style throughout with the help of excellently chosen locales from his hometown. Using visual cues from not only the film noir genre his script so closely channels but of spaghetti westerns and even anime, this mixed bag of influences makes up the largely bizarre and erratic tone of the film. In one key scene as a second murder is carried out in a damp tunnel, birds take flight and shriek as a man is shot through the head; the framing and timing of the scene is right out the Sergio Leone note book (not that he had one), an example from a few standout sequences in the film.

The dialogue seems to be the deciding factor on whether or not one can stomach Brick, a factor in which I believe the spectator's knowledge of film noir or hardboiled detective fiction has little to do with their decisive outcome. It solely comes down to the execution of the script. I've never had trouble accepting these late-teen characters speaking like a bunch of wisecracking Dick Tracy types, and I believe the actors deliver their lines to the best of their ability, however the tone feels flat throughout. Whether this is the actors making I'm not sure but Johnson's dialogue, which is pretty good here, doesn't have the fresh vibrance needed to propel the words into the viewer's mind. Some memorable lines could have come from the page if the words were enunciated with more gusto. I'd like to think that Johnson deliberately toned down the colour of his words to fit with the solemn tone of the whole piece, if so, I feel that was a mistake. Chinatown is one of the bleakest films ever made but Jack Nicholson is a pleasure to behold with cinephiles all over the world able to quote back and forth Robert Towne's words, while in Brick no one is either interesting, despicable, or just plain nice. The film seems to operate from the dead zone. Whether they're an apparently dangerous drug dealer, a stoner drop out, high class party girl, or the inquisitive detective, they're all alarmingly interchangeable.

The main criticism for Brick does indeed come from the film's melding of film noir tropes with high school teen. Disconcerted viewers are put off by the actor's off key unworldly manner of speech; if the viewer is older then they've more than likely seen the older films that Brick riffs from, finding the whole set up laughable as "kids play grownups" as it were. If they're of the same age as Joseph Gordon Levitt's Brendan then perhaps they simply can't relate to these characters as they appear alien and nonsensical. Either way the film has seen to perplex and anger many, no matter what the age.

I've always found the idea of these high school students "playing adults", as most criticise, a very interesting concept that the film perhaps only semiconsciously deals with. Anyone's teenage years are difficult, as you're subjected to the contradicting command to mature by your elders while in most cases still being treated with the respect of a child. From an adults point of view the importance and mindset of this formative stage in life is lost in many instances; as one looks back at growing up, its easy to shrug off crises and dramas of the time as overwrought and amplified, now viewed as inconsequential when compared to newer adult experiences. Likewise, children and teenagers look up to adult lives and rarely see anything worth liking; the routines and manner of many adults seem unappealing and stale while their tender-footed problems are the ones that matter, going seemingly unrecognised by elders. Brick looks to bridge the gap between generations by taking high school and treating it severely instead of trivially like it's so often viewed, both in the real and movie world. These characters face real problems such as drugs, pregnancy, love, and loss and often face brutal consequences of life, whether of their own doing or conspired against them by others. The story told is an adult one and the film expects the viewer to treat its characters accordingly; it may be that the condescending views and lack of understanding regarding Brick speaks volumes of this misunderstood youth who remain in limbo, not  children yet not quite adults, or of course maybe the film's premise just doesn't work.

Central to Brick is the character of Brendan, played by Levitt, who's journey we follow as he descends into the underworld to uncover the truth of his missing and eventually dead ex-girlfriend Emily. He's the only player the film who comes close to being magnetic, falling short by Levitt's usual high standard. His quest for truth is questionable and only mildly interesting, perhaps the reticence of motive is what dampens the unfurling convoluted plot and drains it of any wonderment. Nothing is revelatory in Brick's plotting. In fact, the cast who act older than their high school level are all round too cool for school, as it were. They're surface level through and through, rendering everyone including our hero as hollow vessels, something that could be delved into deeper if the film had an ounce of concern for a social commentary or satire regarding high school life.

Again, in broader more abstract terms Brick can provide insight, such as the brief flashbacks between Brendan and Emily. The drama remains flat but the idea of him desperately trying not to lose her to the cruel underbelly of the world is universally tragic, she is lost like a victim to a strong current. This is of course applicable to all life but it's in the context of high school that this works so strongly; as a year graduates and are released to the world, some will succeed and some will fail, triumphs and disappointment caused by others and from internal conflict. We all have a path to follow, undeniably one we must follow alone. Emily's decent cost her life and Brendan learns a harsh lesson that will shape him forever.

There are things I really like about Brick, as a whole it frustrates me and fails to move me upon viewing, but there's themes and emotions present perhaps only half acknowledged. That may not be important as these themes are certainly there, to this viewer anyway, offering me this much to think over and write about. Brick is a film that will continue to baffle me and one I will never advise someone against; will I ever like the film? I doubt it. Will I continue to give it a chance? At the rate I'm going, it seems likely.

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