What do you think of when you think of movies set in high school? Perky cheerleaders? Sure. Unrequited love? Of course. Quirky comedies loosely based on Shakespeare? Ugh. A Dashiell Hammett inspired murder mystery with Lynchian undertones? Probably not, but that’s exactly what first time writer/director Rian Johnson has in Brick, a modern detective movie set in the most unusual of places: High School. Not since Laura Palmer’s body washed up on the shores of Twin Peaks has a pretty dead blond girl caused so much trouble for so many people.
Brick begins with a death. Well, not really a death so much as a dead body. Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has just found his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin of Lost) dead, face down in a sewer. How she got there is anyone’s guess. Cut to two days previous when Emily asks for Brendan’s help. Brendan decides that while he doesn’t care what she’s doing, or who she’s doing it with, he just wants to find her and make sure she’s okay. So, where are we again? Oh yeah, Emily is dead, but we already knew that. Brendan goes on a quest to find out who killed her and why and enters into a world of drugs (run by “The Pin,” played by Lucas Haas looking stranger than ever), deception, and violence (At one point, Brendan basically has a showdown with a thug and a very fast car). Did any of this happen to you in high school? I didn’t think so.
What writer/director Rian Johnson wanted was a way to make a detective movie without making it a detective movie full of trench coats and dark alleys. He pretty much got his wish. At times, it was very easy to forget that we were dealing with high school kids (Except for the Pin, who is 26, but still lives with his mom) because they basically did what they wanted, whenever they wanted. They knew the system of high school and they knew how to get around it. They can even cut deals with Assistant Vice Pricipals if they are so inclined.
Brick is a cool movie. Its cool from the kids who definitely look and act older than high schoolers, right on through to the unusual style of speaking the kids have (there is not only a glossary on the Brick website, there is also a nice one up at E Street Theater). The story is tight with Noir twists and undertones of the quirk of David Lynch (the dead blonde, coffee and pie, and shots of spinning ceiling fans are all echoes of Twin Peaks) and the performances are near flawless. It was especially fun to see Joseph Gordon-Levitt all grown up and primed to become the next Indie It Boy (Just don’t sell out, Joe.).
Despite any (small) shortcomings that Brick may have, it has one thing going for it that is most important of all, especially in today’s cinematic climate: it’s smart. Seriously, how many times do we see things in the movie theater and on the television that are just dumb. Who decided that all Americans are stupid? Who decided that even if we are stupid, that we should only be allowed to watch things that are dumbed down so that every single plot twist is telegraphed right to us? Brick asks more of us as an audience. And shouldn’t everything do that? I’m not calling for every single writer and director ever to make serious murder mysteries, or smart comedies that require a good knowledge of both pop culture and current events, but guys, seriously, we NEED smarter movies. Rian Johnson believes we need them and he has faith that audiences want them. Thanks to Brick there’s one more smart movie out there.