Tonight I made that rare venture back to Isla Vista, to a setting of more youthful days that I now find haunted with so many memories that I simply can’t enjoy the place anyway. I usually try to avoid it altogether, but I.V. Theater’s Magic Lantern series was showing “Brick,” a film that’s had me jonesing for full-on months and which neatly skipped any Santa Barbara movie outlet since its release back in 2005.
The trip was worth it.
“Brick” was that movie my brain has been impatiently awaiting. I’ve been wanting it to occupy two of my valuable hours then leave its unanswered questions to rattle about inside. It was the new “Mulholland Drive” or “Donnie Darko” or “Battle Royale” — in short, something to chew on. Like the other movies in that list, “Brick” takes something very familiar and poses it in a way I wasn’t prepared for. Given the instant cult following that has sprung up around the film, it seems almost pointless to heap additional praised on top of it. Being me, however, I’m going to give a shot at saying something that may have been omitted by its other fans, who have doubtlessly catalogued their own takes on it on blogs and message boards across the internet.
To superimpose the vices of the adult world onto a high school setting is nothing new. Most profoundly, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” did this for several years — and to the kind effect that pop culture is still reverberating with some of the notions it put forth. Its spiritual successor, “Veronica Mars” has been mixing the world of detective noir with high school since its debut in 2004, but claiming that the show is anything like “Brick” would be the same kind of wrong as thinking that Jessica Fletcher and Lt. Columbo would be able to make polite dinner conversation. (Note: While we’re at it, invite me to this dinner party as well.)
No, while “Veronica Mars” is a high school detective whose sunny seaside patch of California offers its own dark mysteries — and they are dark, probably much more so than anybody who doesn’t watch the series would expect — the world of “Brick” is downright bleak. I should probably point out that its version of California is more often than not foggy. The characters that live there seem like they haven’t seen sunlight in long enough that it’s permanently spoiled their dispositions. Everyone — everyone — has an ulterior motive and most of them seem to implement everyone else’s destruction as an integral part.
Simply put, “Brick” is about Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his process of unraveling the mystery of his dead ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). His search takes him from pumped-up jocks to local drug dealers to the burnouts who smolder in suburban backlots. As far as the viewer can tell, Brendan disdains high school society, a thickly layered hierarchy in the universe of the film, and one that is governed by the all-important status of who a person eats lunch with. Brendan eats with no one. A panicked, mysterious phone call from Emily, however — “I screwed up real bad… I didn’t know the brick was bad, but the pin’s on it now” — sends Brendan back into the crowds he’s avoided for so long.
The film translates the various elements you’d expect from an old-fashioned, grown-up noir in clever ways. Instead of the behind-the-scenes reporter feeding the gumshoe the inside information, it’s a loner nerd, The Brain (Matt O’Leary, probably one of the only actual high schoolers in the film.) Instead of the police chief leaning on the detective to do the job he can’t, it’s the vice principal (Richard Roundtree, in a brilliant bit of stunt casting). And instead of the aged, amiable gangster controlling the local seamy underbelly, it’s The Pin (Lukas Haas), a 26-year-old drug pusher who lives with his mother and has somehow attained the status of an urban legend through all his behind-the-scenes doings.
Probably the only element writer-director Rian Johnson didn’t have to change much is that of the femme fatale. With a minor one played by a Meagan Good and a major one by Nora Zehetner, “Brick” offers these dangerous women virtually unchanged from their classic models. They’re the alluring ones who just may be behind all of the criminal intrigue, whether or not it’s happening in high school hallways or the mean streets of the big city. And like everybody else in the cast, these actresses deliver the saucy and the seductive quite well.
The film doesn’t scale back any of the risk to accommodate its high school setting. That should be no surprise, since “Scream” upped the ante of teenage drama to life-or-death suburban carnage nearly ten years ago. What I wasn’t expecting with “Brick” is that it would strike with such intensity that I nearly forgot the film was framed in this cute “high school detective” idea. This world would eat Veronica Mars alive, a tough a creampuff as she might be. And that’s to say nothing of what would become of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. (In short, they’d fare worse than poor Emily, who’s dead in the film’s opening scene.) And because it doesn’t talk down to its purported audience, “Brick,” like “Battle Royale,” helps to validate the concerns of the teenaged set by depicting these characters’ lives how real teenagers feel: life and death, for every tiny struggle that arises.
In the way that “Scream” lent itself to comparisons simultaneously with both “Clueless” and “Psycho,” “Brick” admirably treads the line between genres, creating an altogether new one. Call it neo noir with a teenybopper chaser. It doesn’t matter. The film should appeal to fans of such a wide variety of genres that it should be popping up at the top of Netflix queues of young and old alike. It’s revolutionary, but it’s also the kind of mind-grabbing movie that thrills for its duration and leaves the audience with enough lingering questions — about the plot, about the directorial style, about state of genre films in general — to make it linger. Like a ghost. Like a good mystery.
Oh, and yes — there were enough spinning ceiling fans to remind me of that other dead blonde girl by the water, Laura Palmer.