Trixie Scrubbed the Lobster, Fork-wise
The other day I reviewed a great neo-noir film called Assassination of a High School President. At the end of the piece, I wondered why it didn’t catch on. My answer came after having watched Rian Johnson’s Brick, which came out three years earlier.
Both films stretch a fine layer of nostalgia for 40s and 50s detective movies over the coming-of-age high school drama; their protagonists are awkward loners who must dive into a strange underworld of drugs and cliques in order to solve a big case that will either make them popular or help them get over a girl—the main theme being that the “best years of their lives” bubble that parents consider high school to be is really a cutthroat prison system fraught with thievery, humiliation and death.
The key difference between the movies is the writing. In Assassination of a High School President, I praised the screenwriters’ ideas more than their dialogue. In the case of Brick, the dialogue almost ruined the movie for me. I wanted to turn it off after twenty minutes. The characters’ language is a combination of the “doll face” clichés that people use to parody black-and-white movies and an impenetrable slang that Johnson seems to have made up. This is not new: A Clockwork Orange and Trainspotting introduced audiences to colorful characters whose wildly inventive ways of speaking enhanced their everyday interactions.
But many of the characters in Brick are not colorful. They’re slump-shouldered mumblers with a paradoxical delivery that is at once rapid-fire and sullenly monotone; imagine a shaggy-haired, hoodie-wearing Ben Stein on speed-laced Paxil and you might get the idea. Case in point: our hero, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He’s the prototypical emo teen (minus the lousy taste in music) who happens to be investigating the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). If it weren’t for the occasional auditory flashback of intense fights the couple had, you might get the feeling that he was more Emily’s stenographer than boyfriend. He questions burnouts and gets tips from his friend, The Brain (Matt O’Leary), and eventually winds up on the radar of local drug kingpin The Pin (Lukas Haas). These sound like Dick Tracy characters, but at least Dick Tracy characters moved; these people all sit at desks or against walls, reinforcing the movie’s overall listlessness. Add to that the fact that you can’t understand half of what comes out of their mouths, and you get the same thrill as watching a transient argue with themselves outside a 7-ll.
But Brick is almost a great film. How does that work? Well, if you were to put the movie on mute or perhaps watch it with French or Italian dubbing—you know, a language where even a nothing phrase like “could I please have some ketchup” sounds like a declaration of love or war—you’d have a pretty spectacular thriller on your hands. After about the half-hour mark, when the character Tugger (Noah Fleiss) shows up, the movie takes on new life (which is to say, life), becoming spectacularly violent and interesting. “Tug”, as he’s called, is The Pin’s enforcer; he’s introduced as mindless, punch-happy muscle but it quickly becomes clear that he’s ambitious—not necessarily smart, especially with that temper and that gun. But he definitely has eyes for The Pin’s operation, which brings him head-to-head with Brendan and his need to figure out Emily’s connection to the drug ring.
If Rian Johnson is inept at making dialogue scenes compelling, he’s a pro at staging and filming fight scenes. They’re exciting, surprising, and inventive, and there’s a harsh disconnect between Brendan’s go-rounds with Tug and the captain of the football team and the high-school-film-class-level of the rest of the production (seriously, watching the first scene of this movie, in which Brendan crouches next to Emily’s body at the mouth of a sewage drain, I thought, “Someone watched Citizen Kane this semester!”).
By the climax, when Brendan faces off with the forces of evil, I was totally hooked, in spite of the fact that I didn’t give a shit about the hero or his dead girlfriend. I get that one of the themes of noir is flawed men wrestling internal and external demons, but at a certain point, both Brendan and Emily become wholly unsympathetic characters. At the outset, we’re made to believe that Emily fell into the wrong crowd at school, which led her down the path to drugs; later, we learn that she was not the perfect princess Brendan thought her to be, but rather a loose party girl who slept with pretty much everyone but The Brain. And maybe it’s a good thing that she split with Brendan who, when not mumbling or getting punched in the face swings in the yelling, smashing direction. Perhaps he should have gotten into drugs, if only to chill the fuck out.
Worst of all, after the chillingly inspired climax, a Mexican standoff at The Pin’s lair (the wood-paneled basement of his mom’s house), we get a tense scene between Brendan and Laura (Nora Zehetner), the saucy femme fatale whose allegiances are suspect from frame one. She describes how the showdown ended, filling Brendan in on what he missed after he split. This is a big piece of the puzzle—as important as the fate of Mr. Pink at the end of Reservoir Dogs—and I couldn’t understand what she was talking about. Thanks to Netflix Instant Play, I was able to rewind three times and piece together the events; but, Jesus, should I really have to work this hard to enjoy a movie?
The blame for this disaster lies solely on Johnson’s shoulders. His actors are capable and have done really well in other projects; here, they’re asked to dial their charisma back to negative figures and fight through dialogue that does nothing to convince the audience that it serves the story. Had Brick been written and directed by the team behind Assassination of a High School president, it would’ve been an instant classic. They understood that people don't remember noir for the affected acting style or whiz-bang dialogue, but for the dark stories that speak to our baser passions. Brick is a lippy throwback to a genre that never existed, an overrated indie darling that’s somehow managed to eclipse the real deal. It’s a crime worth looking into.