Brick

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Brick

(Above: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (far left) and Nora Zehetner (far right) star in Brick.)

Director/Writer: Rian Johnson
Cinematography: Steve Yedlin
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas
Studio info: Focus Features, 110 mins.

Dashiell-Hammett-inspired high-school noir full of stylish surprises

High-school sleuths are popular on TV—Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Hardy Boys, to name a few.

Social cliques and hormonal tensions coupled with deceptively blasé suburban backdrops tend to refresh gumshoe maneuvers, even as murderous intrigue adds zap to all the Clearasil melodrama.

Brick, director Rian Johnson’s crackling debut, shakes up a genre that’s grown a bit routine, while indulging our familiarity with it. Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Mysterious Skin, Third Rock from the Sun) plays Brendan, the smart, loner kid whose broken heart leads him to the local teenage underworld when his ex-girlfriend (Lost’s Emilie de Ravin) goes missing.

The plot springs along on dozens of smaller mysteries, as Brendan chases clues—scraps of paper with cryptic drawings, a cigarette butt tossed from a speeding car, the identity of a shadowy figure called The Pin—and throws a lot of punches at lunky obstacles with names like Dode and Tugger (Johnson deploys beat-downs the way Michael Bay blows up buildings). But Brendan quickly finds himself in over his head.

What compelled a Sundance jury to award Johnson a special prize for “originality of vision” was probably two things: his jittery edits, which tend to juxtapose stationary long shots with sudden close-ups, and his extremely mannered dialogue. The former captures and sustains a knot-in-the-gut feeling, intensified by composer (and cousin) Nathan Johnson’s brilliant abstract score—all throbbing violin and stark piano. The latter evokes the clipped lingo of Phillip Marlowe, cross-wired with David Mamet. Southern California kids who look like they should be in line for a Gwen Stefani show drop slang like “duck soup” (easy pickings) and “bulls” (cops) as if they were studying James Ellroy in English class.

The cast, which includes an impressively demonic Lukas Haas, rattles off these lines so quickly that it’s hard to always know what they’re talking about. Johnson’s habit is to jump to the next scene before the current one is fully complete, which keeps audiences on edge but often in the dark. (Oddly enough, that’s what makes Brick most reminiscent of another Sundance favorite, the kitchen-sink sci-? thriller, Primer.) Still, like those punches that lunge across the screen and send Brendan reeling toward his next clue, it’s a left-field surprise that’s worth the effort.

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