This is a perfect movie. Rian Johnson started his career with the kind of introduction to audiences that directors never really get. This ranks with Citizen Kane and Eraserhead as one of the best debut films of a director ever. Adapting the hard-boiled detective genre to a California high school, Johnson provided new color and energy to a long moribund genre that he grew up loving through Dashiell Hammett stories, writing an exceedingly tight mystery with shocking emotional depth. Using San Clemente High School, where Johnson attended, and surrounding area locations, Johnson’s low-budget effort never feels small or claustrophobic, perfectly using his limited financial resources to their maximum effect.
Brendan is a loner in high school who was a small-time drug dealer but got out of the game clean by giving up his partner. Now he is the member of no gang or clique, eating lunch alone out behind the school. His only connection to the rest of the world was Emily, his girlfriend, but even she left him a couple of months before. He seems content with his isolation until Emily calls him on a payphone one day, scared, and begging for his help. That single call sends Brendan down a path that takes him through the upper crust of San Clemente High School’s drug culture. When Emily ends up dead by a tunnel, Brendan makes it his mission to break the teeth of those responsible. Using clues from Emily’s call to him, Brendan knows that he needs to find out about “the pin”, “tug”, and “the brick”.
The twisty path that Brendan takes fits so perfectly with the cliquey world of high school while recalling the organized crime and corruption origins of the genre. The theater geeks, headed by the Vamp Kara, are a source, but it’s the jock, Brad Bramish, who seems to be at the top of the high school food chain. When Brendan lays him out in a fight in the parking lot and no one stops him, he knows that Brad was nothing more than a patsy, a front, and that the path will go further. He wasn’t the pin, the kingpin. Brad’s girlfriend Laura attaches herself to Brendan, or tries because Brendan doesn’t trust her at all.
This all feels like a noir from the 40s, and yet it fits the high school setting so well at the same time. Brendan is there to make those who hurt Emily pay, ending up playing both sides against the middle, and at the core is Brendan’s isolation. The movie is a technical marvel, expertly weaving its complex plot with precisely captured cool toned visuals that create a cohesive experience, but Brendan’s drive through the plot remains crystal clear. Brendon loved Emily. She was his only connection to the world, and even after she cast him off he never stopped loving her, though he suffered that alone. When she reached out to help, he did it because he loved her. When she ended up dead, he followed the plot because he loved her. He never stops loving her, and yet it’s never treated at the forefront. It’s implicit except for one moment where Brendan completely breaks down (a moment Laura takes advantage of).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries this movie in every scene, playing Brendan like a proud but wounded animal. The rest of the cast is pitch perfect as well. Emilie de Ravin is Emily, a broken girl who wants more but is far out of her depth. Lukas Haas plays the Pin as the eldest amongst a group of youngsters with dreams of larger things, barely holding his nascent drug empire together against this new threat he doesn’t quite understand. Noah Segan, as Dode, Emily’s new drug addled boyfriend, is edgy and unpredictable. Brian White as Brad is the exact kind of theatrical jock who’s all talk. My favorite of them all might be Matt O’Leary as Brain, though. According to one theory, Brain, who helps Brendan along the way with information, does not actually exist and is instead a manifestation of Brendan’s subconscious, allowing him someone to talk to in order to work things out, but whether he’s real or not, he gives this kind of mannered performance of a really smart kid in a world he can see clearly but doesn’t quite understand for, as he says, people are hard.
The music, written by Johnson’s cousin Nathan Johnson, evokes the 40s, feeling appropriate for the throw-back nature of the overall piece. I wouldn’t normally comment on basic sound design, but since Johnson cut this together on a home computer (while doing the sound mix in an actual studio), I think it needs to be mentioned that the sound is deep, multi-directional, and inventive. The camera work is filled with small things that Johnson’s become known for in their earliest stages, like when Brendan is getting beaten by Tug and the camera swings back and forth with every well-timed hit.
Brick is a joy to watch. It’s the work of a man who threw everything he had at the screen in an attempt to make a movie, perhaps the only feature length movie he’d ever get to make. He wanted to make the best thing he could possibly pull together with the $450,000 he pulled from family and friends, and he wanted to pay tribute to the genre that captivated him as a child while utilizing his film school education to maximum effect. It’s thrilling, touching, and shockingly well made. Brick is just flat out great.