First-timer Rain Johnson’s Brick has all these elements and more. The film starts with the protagonist, Brenden Frye’s (Joseph Gordon Levitt) pensive crouching pose reminiscent of the Thinker. The ensuing long shot then leads us to the setting of a tunnel where a few feet away from Brenden lays the body of a blond girl sprawled next to the flowing water. As Steve Yedlin’s camera deliciously and shockingly presents a montage of the girl’s brown skirt, blond hair and electric-blue painted fingernails on a hand with true-blue bangles, it sets the stage for a noir-ish thriller which alternatively vows, shocks and surprises you at every turn. Since this first scene, the film belongs to three people—Director Johnson, Second-in command Yedlin and the prophet Levitt.
Simply put, Brick is about high-school drug trade and some student and non-student players in the lucrative business of giving students their first, second and sometimes…their last high. When Brenden receives a call from his now-dead ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) for help, his incisive mind decides that he will go all out to be there for her. He seeks help from a prototype of a geek, The Brain (an endearing Matt O’Leary) who adds on to his insights with some research data to chart out a map of the drug pyramid. Repeatedly warned by almost every character to leave this business alone, Brenden, like every protagonist, goes out to seek The Pin (Lukas Hass) who is at the top of the drug pyramid; but he does so with a clear vision often aided by his rimless spectacles. As he picks through the maze with the help of clue-conversations with vampish seductive Kara, brainless-brawny Brad, hunkish Tugger, dope Dode and velvet-voiced rich girl Laura, Branden’s charismatic composure wins him brownie points with all concerned…including the devious Pin. With many encounters, as the scars and abrasions on his face begin to change from fresh red to deep brown, Brenden slowly uncovers the truth behind the blacks, whites, grays and browns of Brick.
A few cliché’s rule the roost (WARINING: SUSPENSE SPOILER) which are as glaring as the mole on a mafia boss’s face…like Brenden’s spotless-clean gray jacket which he wears all the time and loses it in the second last scene when the pyramid collapses and his final scene of the confrontation with Laura; like the overpowering presence of the colour brown which incidentally is present in almost every scene, right from Brenden’s brown leather boots, to Emily’s brown skirt, to the wooden interiors of the Pin’s basement, to the apple juice that Pin’s mother gives the thoroughly thrashed Brenden after his first confrontation with the Pin. Artfully inserted, brown sets the tone of the movie, until the end where the Brick is white.
The plot is carried forward by words; starkly in contrast with some action that you might expect, most action comes from and is generated by words. As Levitt says in an interview about Brick, “In "Brick," the world is born from the words.” Staccato sentences and measured emotions form the conversations between characters. The strong but sparse number of characters adds to the spice in the movie. Johnson has done justice to each character. Mind you, there are heroes and villains and the beauties and the beasts; but there are no extras. Each dialogue of each character is weighed like gold—there is no wastage. Eventually the product sparkles.
The cinematography is original; from being a detached voyeur to presenting the POV of the characters, the camera draws you deep into the movie. So much so that you feel Brenden’s loneliness. The setting is charming. Mostly open spaces which are sparsely populated, indoor-shoots too present an element of spacious stuffiness, as paradoxical as it may sound. The slick editing helps Yedlin’s product to not just shine but sparkles. Nathan Johnson and Larry Seymour original score plus their mixing is just perfect; it heightens and elevates the mood and subdues the tone when needed. At no point, does the non-diegetic sound overpower the mise-en-scene of the scene. It stays true to reality. Interestingly, the diegetic sound keeps us hooked to the present though out (example the constant presence of the traffic sound in the last scene between Brndon and Laura).
Finally the performances—very rarely have I seen such perfect casting. Every actor creates a student at the Southern Calafornia school. They are not playing the characters; they are the characters. Differentiated by craftiness, intelligence, seductiveness, bravado, brawniness or vulnerability, each actor plays his/ her part to perfection. Emily is charmingly vulnerable, her gray eyes speak of the addiction she can’t let go of, the addiction that she desperately doesn’t want to let go of. Laura is caring and charming by turns. While you can see blood rushing to Tugger’s brain every time he is on camera, you can feel Dode’s wastedness every time the camera stops to focus on him. Pin looks as devious as ever and, finally Levitt becomes the sum total of all these adjectives. A charismatic combination of all of the above, except perhaps seductiveness, Levitt as Benden makes you wanna reach out to him even when he is helplessly crying. He gives a whole new meaning to the term, ‘Boys don’t cry.’
Finally, Johnson has grafted well. Trying to present a ‘this-is-what-the-real-world is like’ theme in a less-than usually colourful high school setting, Johnson attempts to show that is sort-of grown-up high school students have grown-up a little more. The only adult presence of authority in the entire film was of the Assistant Vice Principal, who is more of a belligerent policeman, who understands the value of his source but is caring enough to ensure that he doesn’t fall down the manhole. The director plays a smart game with some fire and some blood. He clears the ring. Good Show!