Generally speaking, films set around the world of US high schools are to be given a very wide berth, especially when they are using a high school setting for an alternate backdrop to an established genre.
There have been hundreds of tediously clichéd standoffs between the jocks and the nerds or the chess club and the cheerleaders over the years, and any number of unimaginative reworkings of Shakespeare, westerns and the rest in the corridors and classrooms of some generic school in a standard suburb.
Add to that the fact that most people, once they’ve left school, have little desire to go back, and you’ll generally find that school-set films are aimed squarely at the teenage cinemagoer and usually play to a decidedly teenage mindset.
Every now and again, something interesting will come out of the high school mix. Examples are Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Buffy the Vampire Slayer – the TV show, not the film. But mostly, if you’ve seen one film set in a high school, you’ve seen them all.
In other words, describing Brick as a high school-set film noir is likely to be rather offputting. Yet although the familiar school environs and character types are present, this is a much more mature movie than one would normally expect from such a setting.
The intrigues and plots here are darker and more adult in theme, revolving not around teenage crushes but murder and criminal conspiracies. In places, the tone is reminiscent of David Lynch’s wonderfully weird and unsettling Twin Peaks as the film’s hero, 3rd Rock From the Sun’s Joseph Gordon-Levitt, gradually uncovers the events surrounding the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend.
Although Gordon-Levitt found fame through a small-screen sitcom, in this more serious role he demonstrates much potential, keeping the balance of youthful stubbornness and growing maturity of thought and action just right as he slowly uncovers ever greater layers of confusion. The most obvious comparison is, at first glance, Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s antihero detective, so memorably brought to the screen by Humphrey Bogart in the 1946 noir classic The Big Sleep.
Yet rather than Bogart’s portrayal of Marlowe, Gordon-Levitt’s teenage version is more reminiscent of Elliot Gould’s laid-back take on the character in Robert Altman’s 1973 version of The Long Goodbye. And rather than Chandler’s style of detective noir, it is instead the works of Dashiell Hammett, the creator of The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade, whom Bogart also memorably played, which seem to have inspired the complex plot here.
With such a knowledgeable melding of two of detective fiction’s greatest 20th Century stylists in an early 21st Century setting, the real surprise is that such an accomplished and unusual movie could come from first-time writer/director Rian Johnson. Despite the background of teenage angst and school squabbles, Johnson has managed to create a movie every bit as involving as that other great film noir of recent years, LA Confidential.
Having been awarded a special jury prize for originality of vision at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, it can only be hoped that this new directorial talent manages to come up with something equally quirky and accomplished for his next feature. In the meantime, Brick has every chance of becoming an unusual modern classic.