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Time Out says
Mon May 8 2006Black never goes out of fashion and nor, it seems, does noir. The last year has given us several contemporary spins on the genre: jaded, self-referential pastiche in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, hyper-stylised comic-book ultraviolence in ‘Sin City’ and now, with ‘Brick’, a patter-heavy gumshoe procedural with a high-school setting. The milieu of wobbly-voiced kingpins, teen temptresses and a world-weary shamus who barely shaves is a high concept that could easily fall flat, but, through a judicious balance of heightened plotting and dialogue and a straight-faced engagement with violence and jeopardy, the film comes off less ‘Bugsy Malone’ than ‘Bogey Begins’.
The plot is as chewy as the genre demands, with Brendan ( Joseph Gordon-Levitt) setting out to find and then avenge his drug-using ex Emily (Emilie de Ravin) after he receives an uncharacteristic plea for help. True to noir form, his pursuit takes him across boundaries of high, low and outlaw society, with an archetypal rogue’s gallery mapped on to the high school ecosystem with satisfying facility: the lug, the rich girl, the dope fiend and the femme fatale all find credible underage counterparts, often played by actors with juvenile records in the biz: Lukas Haas (‘Witness’, ‘Mars Attacks!’), for instance, is relishably offbeat as local drug lord ‘The Pin’. But it’s Gordon-Levitt (freakily adult in ‘Third Rock from the Sun’, heartbreaking in ‘Mysterious Skin’) who cements the whole thing: understated to the point of near-invisibility, his Brendan still has killer smarts, balls of steel, a natty line in put-downs and the shrugging acknowledgement of all Hammett-style heroes that the price of knowledge is violence visited on the body.
Despite some uncertainty of pace at its top and tail, the plot is consistently engaging. But ‘Brick’ is at its most sheerly enjoyable when teetering on the brink of ridiculousness – a glimpse of The Pin’s home life with his mom, Brendan’s showdown with a shouty vice-principal standing in for the disgruntled police chief (a delicious cameo for Richard Roundtree) – and it only rarely stumbles. The self-consciously mannered rat-a-tat-tat dialogue also mines a neat overlap between teen slang and noir patois, both of which can be indecipherable to non-initiates (the press notes helpfully include a glossary).
Yet in other ways ‘Brick’ is surprisingly plausible. Shooting on his home turf of southern California, Johnson eschews conventionally noirish cityscapes for flat, muted expanses and exploits the sinister potential of the everyday, generating almost Lynchian unease through the sense of unspeakable secrets eavesdropped upon. This is heightened by the film’s canny use of sound: a Ford Mustang growls like a lion while the quickening pattering threat of footsteps on concrete is eerily offset (as in ‘The Birds’) by the naive sound of piano practice – and ultimately converted into a cartoon ‘klang!’ when the pursuer comes a cropper. It’s a characteristic moment: violent, chuckling and insisting to be taken on its own terms.
Author: Ben Walters
Fri May 12, 2006