Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Thirty-Five

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#35 — Brick (Rian Johnson, 2006)
Sometimes movies use dialogue to capture how we do talk, wallowing in the stammers, the pauses, the redundancies. False starts and restless thinking out loud intermingle, obscuring the exposition and banter while also lending them a smack of authenticity. Then there are those movies that are about how we should talk: rapid and pointed and endlessly inventive, using language like a weapon instead of just a blunt tool. At their best, these films are hyper-verbal avalanches, cascades of sharply rendered words that are infused with attitude. This stylistic approach goes back at least to the classic screwball comedies, films that fully exploited the relatively new development of film sound as if there was a certain quota of words required to keep the audio in place, to prevent the soundtrack from spinning off recklessly in the projection booth. It arguably reached its pinnacle with the classic film noirs of the forties and fifties, the dense language spun into a darker weave. The words are so perfectly chosen, it’s what you’d expect to hear if a dictionary could talk, especially if it had a bad attitude from all that time on the shelf.

As films became more naturalistic, that approach to dialogue withered away, and the relentless valuing of concept over character, spectacle over depth caused further harm. One of the reasons Rian Johnson’s Brick is so exciting is that it values those qualities that are increasingly discarded in the filmmaking process. Johnson has a fine visual sense in constructing the film, bringing an unlikely foreboding to the chintzy paneling of a suburban basement or the painted cinder blocks of a public school, but it’s the language of the screenplay that is truly riveting, somehow managing to be both retro and revolutionary. Like many of the revered film noir offerings, it is a detective story fueled by double lives, a unseemly underworld and femme fatales. Instead of a weathered private eye, the film finds its hero in the form of a high school student following the troubling trails that lead to the body of his deceased ex-girlfriend. He’s a contemporary teen in a world that seems better suited to the yellowing pages of old paperback novel. It’s a big, glaring choice, and it could easily tip over into empty experimentation, a conceit that displaces emotion and narrative integrity.

It avoids gimmickry, however, because it is such a perfect, if surprising, fit. For one thing, the whipcrack banter and edgy lingo sounds exactly right coming from these teenagers, a demographic already inclined towards shortcut slang and perpetual grammatical reinvention. More importantly, Johnson taps into the heightened emotions inherent in these words. The intensity of the verbal interplay reflects feverish emotions worn right on the surface. Desire, jealousy, rage all play out at peak temperatures, and fear and fearlessness interplay as rapidly and as assuredly as if they were etched on opposite sides of a spinning target. The language of film noir is the language of the immediate: rewards demanded, challenges issued, betrayals named, condemned and moved past in the single breath required to recite a long, angular sentence. That is high school, when every feeling is the most intense you’ve ever felt and the most intense you’ll ever feel, when every interpersonal conflict is cataclysmic. It may strain credulity to have modern mugs going off the deep end for a moody dame with killer gams. Unless, of course, the dame in question is two lockers down, accidentally toying with agitated hormones as easily and absent-mindedly as she might spin the dial of a combination lock.

That doesn’t mean the film’s success is automatic. The material still needs to brought to life, words anchored to emotions or else they become impediments to meaning, a vocabulary exercise instead of an entry to the story. As a director, Johnson finesses the tone and pacing with great skill. He also collaborates beautifully with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays the film’s lovelorn protagonist. Gordon-Levitt strides across the strip-mall landscape with his jacket pulled tight around him, bracing himself against an environment fraught with danger. That danger increases exponentially with each new clue he unearths, each step further he takes into the dark hollow of the fresh-faced gangland battlefield he discovers. His protective layers were damaged by the girls who turned away from him, and ruptured entirely by his own stern curiosity, his need to get to the bottom of things. His intelligence is his armor, but its also a metal rake hurled at a hornets’ nest. He’ll deliver some damage, but there will also be painful results. Gordon-Levitt could have waltzed through the film with a disaffected cool–a Mitchumesque bedraggled smirk–and been effective. He gets more out of the role and gives more to the film by tapping into some fragility, some uncertainty alongside the ingenuity. It’s just a role, and a stylized one at that, but Gordon-Levitt remembers to also make it into a recognizable person.

That’s the central trick, and it’s a good one. With the layers of style removed, the dialogue chilled to more direct expression, the floridness of emotion carefully tempered, there would still be a compelling story, still characters well-drawn enough to engender concern and sympathy. Brick inspires investment with or without its genre trappings and nostalgic dialogue flourishes. That doesn’t diminish those elements; it heightens them, makes the cinematic ride all the more intoxicating. It is a splendid scrap, a strident joyride and a film that merits proud placement amidst the hard-boiled masterworks that served as its inspiration.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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