Monday, February 26, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #186 - Brick (2005, dir. Rian Johnson)

For a couple of years I lived in a small town in southern Vermont within walking distance of the Latchis Theater, an art deco movie house built in 1938. The Latchis remains one of the coolest, most inviting, and remarkable theaters where I’ve regularly watched movies. During that time I saw a lot of movies at the Latchis, but an offbeat mystery from a first-time director left one of the strongest impressions on me. Despite my best efforts to enter any movie theater knowing as little as possible beforehand, I must have known on some level that Brick would combine the genres and styles of film noir and high school movies, but that knowledge did not prepare me for what I was about to experience. Rian Johnson’s directorial debut isn’t merely an exercise in style and form; through merging film noir with the tropes of teen movies established in the 1980s, Brick prevails as something far more substantial, engrossing, and memorable than the sum of its parts.

As writer and director Rian Johnson pitches the language and look of Brick squarely between hardboiled crime dramas of the 1940s and sunny, southern California teen movies of the late twentieth century. The characters speak in a clipped, idiosyncratic lingo that may seem anachronistic, but mimics the impenetrable local slang of a high school’s in-crowd and adds to the movie’s snappy pacing. Johnson grew up in San Clemente, California and filmed Brick at locations throughout the area including the high school he attended. Johnson seeks out the forgettable, in-between spaces that tend to attract groups of bored teenagers and frames his story within the sidelines of this sprawling, shabby ocean-side town. When Joseph Gordon-Levitt made Brick, he was nearing the point in his twenties (and in his career) when he was about to age out of teen roles but playing the protagonist Brendan allowed him to demonstrate that he was fully capable of tackling challenging, dynamic, and emotionally complex roles. As Brendan, Gordon-Levitt renders himself almost unrecognizable through a physical bearing marked by a clenched jaw, tousled hair, hunched shoulders, and relentless forward motion. Gordon-Levitt beautifully inhabits the pent-up posture of the high school misfit with a chip on his shoulder and a list of grievances that remain a mystery to all but himself. By setting a murder mystery within the realm of the frenetic solipsism of youth, Johnson somehow manages to amplify the sense that his characters are facing matters of life and death. As heavy as things get (and they do get pretty heavy), Johnson inserts playfully sly humor into the proceedings like a delightfully satisfying confrontation between Brendan and an assistant vice principal played by Richard Roundtree.

Over a decade after Brick’s release, it persists as the kind of movie that can be summed up in just a few words, but lingers powerfully in the minds of many who have seen it. Rian Johnson spent several years working on his debut and you can tell that he was staking his forthcoming career on both this novel concept as well as his distinctive, efficient skills as a filmmaker. Johnson’s sophomore effort, The Brothers Bloom, differs greatly from Brick in nearly every observable way. In contrast to Brick’s taut stylistic minimalism and succinct narrative, Johnson embraces a busy and bright extravagance to tell the rambling, globe-trotting tale of The Brothers Bloom. In 2012 Johnson teamed up with Joseph Gordon-Levitt again and aligned his ambitions more directly with some of the most successful elements of Brick for the existential time-travel crime thriller Looper. A couple of months ago, I went to the theater to watch Johnson’s fourth film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and despite the forty years of franchise history, I picked up on the kinds of themes and artistic choices that make Brick such a breathtaking experience. 

 -         John Parsell

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