High school, as we all know, is a sterile but lively, dull but thrilling place, a prison house where an odd sort of freedom reigns—a setting that we can’t wait to escape, right up to the point when we do escape it and then can’t wait to return. We struggle there to carve a path to adulthood, and then spend our adult lives pining for the warm, thick coat of emotional intensity that we must shed along the way. The phrase “high-school reunion,” which evokes the complete arc of an attraction-repulsion cycle, says it all. One way that people reunite with that fool’s-golden time in their lives, especially if they are film-makers, is by telling stories that shift classic tales of adult experience into a high-school setting.
Brick draws scenes and situations and even chunks of dialogue from the works of Dashiell Hammett, and adapts them to the milieu of 21st-century American adolescence. The upshot is a highly stylized, completely fanciful, but strangely recognizable world: hardboiled high school. The school, unnamed but clearly located in the wastelands of southern California, has a post-apocalyptic look to it, an effect reinforced by the near absence of adults from its bleak, bleached-out confines. (Maybe the Peanuts TV specials, with their always-offscreen parents and teachers, should share credit with Hammett for influencing Johnson, who both wrote and directed this début work.)
The message is clear: Down these mean hallways a kid must go who is not himself mean.
That kid is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a scrawny, bespectacled student who turns shamus after a note slipped into his locker sends him on a chase for “Em,” an old flame. Neither geek nor jock nor stoner nor one of the popular set, Brendan closely mirrors the classic fictional private eye—the outsider who knows how to play an inside game. He’s also a guy who can land a punch and, more important, take one. Enduring punishment has always been a distinguishing mark of the PI type, for whom heroism has less to do with crime and detection than with a commitment to some doomed ideal, be it love or honor. As played with the straightest of faces by Gordon-Levitt, Brendan evinces a cool, convincing monomania; it’s a trait that arguably wears better on an adolescent than on the grownups who typically assume this role in fiction.
The plot that swirls around Brendan is of the self-immolating kind that typifies noir storytelling, in which moves and countermoves accumulate so fast and with such complexity that finally you don’t care what happens. Action, though abundant, serves mainly as a coarse string on which to gather pearls of dialogue. That note in his locker directs Brendan to an isolated phone booth on an isolated highway. A confused cry crackles from the receiver. (In Veronica Mars, a TV series about a girl sleuth that invites comparison to Brick, cell phones are a ubiquitous and much-used accessory. Here, they are peculiarly rare, as if their presence would violate some noir theme about the impossibility of communication.) It’s Em on the line, presumably in need of help. Lately, she’s fallen in with a bad crowd, one whose hobbies include both dealing drugs and doing them. Brendan, intent on rescuing her, descends into a campus underworld peopled by the likes of Dode, a druggie whose home base is the Dumpster behind a coffee shop; a crippled kingpin who calls himself The Pin (played with weary aplomb by Lukas Haas); Tugger, a muscle-bound lout who wears a muscle shirt and serves as “muscle” to The Pin; and Laura, a sultry rich girl who has a thing for guys lower on the status ladder than she is.
Brendan’s investigation, aided by a nerdy friend whose moniker is simply Brain—Johnson names his characters with all the subtlety of a Dick Tracy comic strip—has its lighter side: The hero launches his quest for Em by pumping witnesses for information on which students she had been “eating with” during lunch period recently. But the case turns deadly serious, with news that an invaluable “brick” of heroin went missing at the time of Em’s disappearance. Then it turns just deadly.
I liked and admired Brick, but I didn’t warm to it, which I take to be part of the point. Reading the original stories of Hammett and his literary ilk, or (even more so) watching the classic films adapted from their novels, I do warm to the material. That’s because the dour vision at the core of such work comes rakishly packaged in layers of period style. The style wasn’t “period” at its creation, of course. (Back in the day, after all, lots of guys wore fedoras and plenty of folks went to nightclubs.) In Brick, Johnson dispenses with the smoky glamour that ingratiates us to films from the noir era, even as he takes up the clipped vocal stylings and the stark plot turns of vintage noir fiction. In transporting those qualities—the ones that actually mattered to Hammett, Chandler, and other hard-boiled writers—to a prefab campus in exurban LA, he reclaims some of the genre’s original dark grit.