That Other High-School-Set Noir Mystery

So, here's the best compliment I can pay Rian Johnson's debut film, Brick: my friend Hagay and I drove to Jerusalem (an hour's drive), where the film was playing as part of the Jerusalem film festival, battled the city's unfamiliar streets and mid-day traffic, paid an exorbitant amount of money for a parking place that turned out to be a ten minute walk away from the cinematheque, and missed the film's first few minutes. And it was all worth it. Brick is smart, and exciting, and fantastically well-acted. It's also gimmicky, of course--high-school students whose lives are steeped in drugs and violence, who never see the inside of a classroom, whose parents are absent or downright insane, and who speak like characters out of a Dashiel Hammet novel. But the true marvel of the film is that it sustains this gimmick all the way to the finish line. Brick is a two hour long tightrope act, where any misstep would mean an immediate and irretrievable plunge into absurdity, but in spite of one or two shaky steps (both, interestingly enough, involving our hero interacting with adult characters), the film carries itself across the abyss.

Best of all, there is more to Brick than the dissonance between its setting and its style. The mystery at the film's heart is clever, and even more cleverly laid out. There are several pulse-pounding fight and chase scenes, and others of great intensity--I can't remember the last time a film left me feeling so wrung out and overwhelmed. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as our protagonist and detective Brendan Frye, gives a stunning performance that keeps the character's heart well under wraps while still giving us a hook to hang our affections on--in this case, Brendan's fierce intelligence and determination. As the classic noir detective must be, Brendan is burned out and disillusioned by life, incapable of love or trust, and it is to both Johnson's (who also wrote the script) and Gordon-Levitt's credit that we nonetheless come to like the character a great deal.

Looking through reviews of the film, I was struck and saddened by the fact that so very few of them--and of those almost none in major venues--compared the film to Veronica Mars, if only to note the nearly diametrically opposed approaches that Johnson and Rob Thomas took to a very similar concept. Veronica Mars is unquestionably a noir detective story, but it eschews the genre's trappings, to the point that, more than once, we've seen characters lampoon the trademark hard-bitten dialogue style that Brick revels in. Veronica Mars asks us to be surprised at the darkness that lurks behind the clean, candy-colored exterior that Neptune, California, presents. Brick asks us to take it for granted. Both works are at their core an indictment of the American dream--as all noir ultimately is--but Brick posits that corruption and indecency are ubiquitous, whereas Veronica Mars usually makes wealth and power a prerequisite to both.

Apart from being a fantastic way to spend two hours, watching Brick also brings into focus two aspects in which Mars deviates from the standard noir tropes. The first is, obviously, the fact that its protagonist is a woman. If Brick has a flaw, it is its treatment of its female characters, which, in accordance with the conventions of the genre, are all either manipulators or victims of manipulations. Brendan's girlfriend Emily, whose panicked cry for help sets the film's plot in motion, has clung to the coattails of those more popular and wealthy than she is, and gotten herself addicted to drugs and murdered for her troubles. The other two female characters--a heartless man-eater and a winsome femme fatale who may or may not harbor genuine feelings for our hero--are too slathered in (mostly offensive) stereotypes to ever develop a believable personality or, indeed, discernible motivations. There seems to be a fear of women, coupled with a disdain towards them, that permeates most noir writing. Veronica Mars neatly sidesteps this attitude, primarily because of the detective's gender but mostly because the writing simply avoids blatant clichés. I've complained before about the paucity of positive female characters on the show, but even at their worst, Thomas' bad girls are recognizably human, and their badness is not blatantly derived from their gender.

A second way in which Mars deviates from the conventions of noir is that Veronica very rarely encounters violence directed at herself. Within half an hour of Brick, Brendan is beaten to a bloody pulp. By the time the film ends, he is throwing up his own swallowed blood and having trouble standing up (by most standards, the violence in the film is fairly mild, but there is a visceral quality to the beatings inflicted on Brendan--right down to the meaty thwaps as the blows hit his body--that makes Brick's violent scenes very difficult to endure). It is Brendan's nonchalant reaction to this violence that particularly distinguishes the film from the television show--clearly, the physically unimposing Veronica couldn't withstand the punishment that he endures (on those occasions when she is physically threatened, Veronica almost always needs to be rescued), but when faced with violence she usually breaks with the noir detective tradition and reacts with fear and horror (the same, by the way, is true for Keith, who on at least one occasion has begged for his life). It is to the Mars writers' credit that they have managed to so consistently, and almost invisibly, stack the deck for two seasons so that Veronica is only rarely faced with situations that can only be resolved with physical violence. They accomplish this largely by making the show's villains smart and educated--as opposed to the street-smart thugs who populate Brick's rogues' gallery (again, we bump up against Thomas' class prejudices)--and therefore less likely to solve problems with a punch.

I'm not entirely certain that I can recommend Brick to Veronica Mars fans. It's a film that probably elicits only extreme reactions. Those viewers capable of suspending their disbelief in the concept of stylistically accurate noir in a high school setting--and it is by no means obvious to me that Veronica Mars fans will all fall in that group--will probably enjoy it immensely. Those who don't buy into the central concept will walk away in disgust. For my part, I am for the first time in a long time genuinely excited by a cinematic work, and can't wait to see what Rian Johnson thinks up next.


Anonymous said…
Brick is indeed very, very awesome, and I was blown away by just how good Joseph Gordon-Levitt was. In the scene with him and Tugger and the car in the parking lot I didn't realise just how tense it was making me until I saw Brendan's reaction afterwards.

As to the Veronica Mars comparisons in the mainstream media, The Observer did a whole article about high school noir.

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