Monday, December 14, 2015

Picks from Chip: Brick

Film: Brick
Format: DVD from personal collection on rockin’ flatscreen.

This is the twelfth in a series of twelve movies selected by Chip Lary at Tips from Chip.

A few years ago when I had a podcast with Nick Jobe at YourFace, we ran the show in a series of seasons. The idea was that our guest would pick a genre of film, Nick would pick a film in the genre he knew that I hadn’t seen, and I would pick a film in the genre he hadn’t seen. At least that was how it worked in theory. We did film noir every season, and every time we did, Nick toyed with the idea of having me watch Brick. When a Half Price Books had a massive movie sale last year (I got more than 50 movies for $30), I bought Brick figuring that I’d get to it eventually.

That eventually turned out to be sometime this year, since Chip put it on my list of 12 movies. Since I owned it, Brick was my insurance—if there was a planned film I couldn’t get, I could always fall back on watching this. Fortunately, that was never necessary, so Brick turns out to be movie #12. It’s a movie I’ve heard about from a lot of people, which means that, essentially sight unseen, I’m going into this with some expectations.

Unlike a lot of films noir, Brick starts out deadly. Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovers his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) dead at the entrance of a tunnel. We flash back a couple of days and learn a few things. Emily was scared of someone. She mentions a few things that make no sense to Brendan: “bad brick,” “poor Frisco,” “Tug,” and “the Pin.” Brendan starts digging with the assistance of his friend Brain (Matt O’Leary, and no, that’s not a typo—the character is named Brain). What he discovers is a series of interconnected drug rings of pushers, users, muscle, and losers. Emily evidently fell in with a combination of those groups and it ended up getting her killed. Brendan takes it upon himself to discover what happened, doing his best to ferret out information from the various drug cliques and keep as much as he can from his high schools vice principal, Trueman (Richard Roundtree).

Yeah, all of this takes place in a high school. That’s really the part that most beggars my imagination here. I mean, I know that kids in high school do drugs and I know that sometimes it gets serious and even gets deadly, but this is street gang level violence and drug operations in what looks like a decent little suburb of something. In fact, it may simply be the incongruity of the level of violence and drug culture in an environment that seems its antithesis that makes the film work the way it does.

Essentially, Emily was playing a number of different angles, and all of this came about because the high school’s main pusher the Pin (short for kingpin and played by Lukas Haas, who is just barely recognizable as the kid from Witness) managed to score ten bricks of heroin. He sold off eight, and kept another, but the last one went missing. So, was Emily tied to that? Was Brendan’s other ex-girlfriend Kara (Meagan Good) involved? What about stoner Dode (Noah Segan)? Or the mysterious Laura (Nora Zehetner) who seems to be involved with everyone and know everything as well. And then there’s Tug (Noah Fleiss), the Pin’s muscle, who seems unable to do anything but give in to ‘roid rage.

I hate to say it, but Brick doesn’t quite live up to the hype. It would have been difficult for it to do so, since I’ve been hearing about it for the last three years. There’s something about it that doesn’t quite work for me. I’m not sure if it’s the overall attitude of the film or something about the characters, but there’s something that feels artificial about the story or the characters. I think it might be the dialogue.

The dialogue is interesting because it’s certainly reminiscent of classic noirs from the ‘40s and ‘50s. It seems strange coming out of the mouths of modern high school students, though. Brick comes off as emotionally cold in a sense because of this. Brendan’s quest to find out who really killed Emily seems to be less about wanting to avenge her and more about simply satisfying his curiosity. I have difficulty with the buy-in on that level, and so on that level, Brick fails for me.

But is it good? I think it is, despite none of the characters being very likable. Actually, Brain could’ve been used more. I do like the parallels to classic noirs. The missing brick of heroin is more or less the black bird from The Maltese Falcon, the McGuffin the drives the plot from place to place. If Brendan is essentially Sam Spade and the Pin is Gutman, that would make Tug the equivalent of Wilmer, Laura would be Brigid, and Brain the equivalent of Effie Perrine. Looked at that way, I respect the film a bit more.

Brick isn’t a bad film and I’d watch it again, but I think it will be some time before I dial it up again. I was too emotionally detached from it because I think it’s too emotionally detached from itself to really hit home for me.

EDIT: Forgot to include this. Despite my problems with the dialogue and some believability, a win is a win. Chip, you end the year at 11.5 for 12.

Why to watch Brick: A solid neo-noir that taps into a good number of classics.
Why not to watch: It’s too cold to make a lot of impact.


  1. "there’s something that feels artificial about the story or the characters. I think it might be the dialogue."

    I was worried about this after you reviewed Much Ado About Nothing and you commented that having Shakespearean dialogue coming out of the mouths of modern day people just didn't connect for you. I'm pretty sure I even commented then along the lines of "Uh-oh, you're not going to like Brick then because it puts 40s noir dialogue in the mouths of modern high school students". Oh well.

    You mentioned the incongruity of who they are and nothing drives this home more than the scene in the Pin's house where there's this dangerous meeting going on yet the Pin's mother is serving them milk and cookies, treating them like the children most of them still are.

    I don't often notice sound in a film (unless it's sound effects for sci-fi) but I did this one. In particular is the bit where he's chasing someone on concrete on the school grounds and his footfalls are very distinct.

    Finally, this isn't my theory, but one I read on IMDB: what if Brain is not real? What if he's all in Brendan's imagination and he's talking to himself? It's literally his own brain. What made this person think this is the final appearance of Brain. Pop the DVD in and watch it again. As it's framed onscreen he steps out of Brendan's head, visually. (The one thing puncturing this theory is that at one point Brendan has Brain watch someone while Brendan is off elsewhere so that sort of points to them having to be two separate people, but the theory is still fun to play with.)

    1. I toyed with bringing that theory up in the review here but decided not to. Not only does Brendan have Brain watch someone else, Brain is the one who tells him that Trueman is looking for him on a day when Brain is in school and Brendan isn't.

      I didn't dislike this--I gave it 3 1/2 on Letterboxd, which puts it well into the "like" categories.

  2. I liked this for what it is, an experiment to place noir tropes in a modern and unusual setting. It has a hard attitude which is essential to noir and JGL is perfect in the lead, just the right age to be believable without seeming like a kid playing grown up.

    Because it is so stylized it does have that remove that could keep the audience from being pulled in but it's unique onto itself which is always worth seeking out. I saw it in the theatre on initial release and own it but it isn't something I watch very often.

    1. Yeah, I get all of that. It's something I'm happy to have seen and I'm happy to have it in my collection. I can't imagine wanting to watch it that often, though.

      However, since I tend to use my movie collection as a lending library, it's nice to have it as one to pass out to other people.