"Brick": A New Classic Film

*I wrote this article back in 2012 for "The Cinementals" website, a website that covered classic "TCM" style movies...the site was taken away from us too soon.  We were having a special "Blog-a-thon" where we talked about movies we thought would be future TCM classics.  I also wrote this article long before Rian Johnson was picked to direct a little Star Wars movie called "The Last Jedi", so there won't be any references to that here.  In fact, "Looper" had yet to be released.  If you haven't already seen it, search out "Brick" and watch it before reading this...cause "Spoilers!"

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Future Classic: Brick (2005)

by Chris Morris

@trilogycomesin3

Brendan Frye: No, bulls would gum it. They'd flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they'd trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we're doing this I want the whole story. No cops, not for a bit.[…] So now we've shaken the tree. Let's wait and see what falls on our heads.

Is this dialogue from an old-school Film Noir from the 1930's, or 1940's?  1950's even?  No, it's from Rian Johnson's "BRICK" (2005), a movie I believe will be seen, years from now, as a classic film.  This film is a neo-noir written and directed by Johnson who not only turns film noir into a modern setting; he also puts it into the world of high school.  The back-stabbing, the double-dealing, the femme fatale, the use of shadows, the whip-smart dialogue are all here, but none of the characters can legally drink.  They do, as well as do drugs, lots of drugs, but of course they do; this is film noir. 

Brendan Frye: Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I've got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.

The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was the kid from the sitcom "3rd Rock from the Sun", is building a reputation as one of the best actors of his generation, after appearing in films such as "The Lookout", "(500) Days of Summer", "Inception" and "50/50".  Gordon-Levitt stars as Brendan, who, as the movie opens, finds the love of his life dead, face down in a puddle of water.  "Brick" was the first time Johnson wrote and directed a film, with a budget around $400,000 and has since made the films "The Brothers Bloom" and the upcoming "Looper" that stars Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis.  This film was quite a debut for Johnson, winning a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and being nominated for awards at many festivals and award shows, including The Independent Spirit Awards.

Laura Dannon: Do you trust me now?

Brendan Frye: Less than when I didn't trust you before.

The first part of the movie is (relatively) typical, the first thirty minutes or so is spent introducing the characters, Brendan, his nerdy sidekick Brain, and good guys, the bad guys and how they all relate to each other.  The dialogue here is crisp and nothing is as it seems.  Johnson uses different camera techniques like rack focuses, simple special effects (such as a really long garbage bag) and speeding up the action in post-production to establish an off-kilter feel.  We as the viewer are just as confused as Brendan is as he tries to figure out who the players are and their purpose.  And of course there's that dialogue...

The Brain: See the Pin pipes it from the lowest scraper for Brad Bramish to sell, maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they'll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin. But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said "Show your hands" if any of them've actually seen The Pin, you'd get a crowd of full pockets.

The scene where Brendan gets into a fight with a football player is where the movie really starts to pick up speed.  Up until this point we have been dropped into a world that is slightly foreign to us, with a language all it's own, almost like the feeling you get hearing Shakespeare for the first time.  But this scene, in a high school parking lot where lots of fights happen, seems to lull us back into a false sense of security.  There are lots of funny lines during the scene, but nothing that confuses us. 

Brad Bramish: Hey! What are you doing here?

Brendan Frye: Just listening.

[long pause while Brad stares at him]

Brendan Frye: All right, you got me. I'm a scout for the Gophers. Been watching your game for a month, but that story right there just clenched it. You got heart kid. How soon can you be in Minneapolis?

Brad Bramish: Yeah?

Brendan Frye: Cold winters, but they got a great transit system.

Brad Bramish: Yeah?

Brendan Frye: Yeah.

Brad Bramish: Oh, yeah?

Brendan Frye: There's a thesaurus in the library. Yeah is under "Y". Go ahead, I'll wait.

After Brendan gets his ass kicked yet somehow still wins the fight, he limps off.  Proudly at first, to not show weakness, but as soon as he turns the corner, he waivers and stumbles; clearly he's putting up a front.  Until Laura comes around the corner, then he straightens up and acts impervious to pain once again.  Then the language used in the next scene is tremendous, a back and forth exchange where Laura wants him to trust her, but he says no and explains all the reasons why.  In detail but very succinctly.

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Brendan Frye: Look, I can't trust you. You ought to be smart enough to know that. I didn't shake the party up to get your attention, and I'm not heeling you to hook you. Your connections could help me, but the bad baggage they bring would make it zero sum game or even hurt me. I'm better off coming at it clean.

Laura Dannon: I wouldn't have to lead you in by the ha...

Brendan Frye: I can't trust you! Brad was a sap. You weren't. You were with him, and so you were playing him. So you're a player. With you behind me I'd have to tie one eye up watching both your hands, and I can't spare it.

A major difference with "Brick" and say, "The Maltese Falcon", is that in Brick the main character, Brendan, does get into some serious trouble, physically and mentally.  Sure, Humphrey Bogart is drugged at one point in "Falcon", but other than that he smirks and punches his way out of trouble.  In "Brick", Brendan is on the other side of the fisticuffs, getting repeatedly hammered on by various people.  He wins one fight, is holding a towel to his bleeding nose, looks up and is then punched out by someone else.  Later on he falls over, having swallowed a lot of blood and struggles to continue.  You feel for Brendan and how he is in pain for the loss of his true love Emily but also physically, as he is probably bleeding internally. 

Brendan Frye: Maybe I'll just sit here and bleed at you.

Brendan does all this while trying to keep the High School Vice Principal Gary Trueman off his back.  Their one scene together may be the highlight of the film, as their dialogue mirrors one from a Bogart film, like the famous "Are you getting this all right, son, or am I goin' too fast for ya?" scene from "The Maltese Falcon".  As an independent force, Brendan must balance his 'going under cover' with The Pin with giving his Principal tidbits of information so that he trusts him enough to leave him alone and not get in his way.

Assistant VP Gary Trueman: You've helped this office out before.

Brendan Frye: No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.

Assistant VP Gary Trueman: Fine. And very well put.

Brendan Frye: Accelerated English, Mrs. Kasprzyk.

Assistant VP Gary Trueman: Tough teacher?

Brendan Frye: Tough but fair.

When Brendan meets Tug, the bruiser, who beats him up twice before they even exchange words, and the man in charge "The Pin", he is brought into their world and is grudgingly accepted, while he is trying to figure out what this word "Brick" is even referring to.  At times he says too much as is again beaten up by the always-angry Tug but then has a meeting with The Pin to iron things out.  This is a brilliant scene, beginning with The Pin's soft-spoken doting mother offering Brendan a drink after already serving him a bowl of cereal as Brendan, The Pin and Tug glare at each other over the dinner table as cookies sit in front of them.  After The Pin's mom leaves the room, the grown-up dialogue ensues:

Brendan Frye: Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head. I want him out.

The Pin: Looky, soldier...

Brendan Frye: The ape blows or I clam.

Tugger: (holding a chicken-shaped milk container menacingly) So clam!  What've you got that I can't beat out of you back in the basement?

The Pin: Give us a few minutes, Tug.  I'll call you if whatever.

Even with all this said about the film, it really isn't enough to fully explain how great this film is.  From the cinematography to the symbolism of all the birds in the film, Johnson does an amazing job balancing all the characters along with every aspect of the story, including the labyrinthine plot.  Things that seem important to a high school student, such as where they eat lunch and with whom, are also important to these characters, giving clues as to not only someone's social structure but also who may be involved in local crime.

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Brendan Frye: Who's she been eating with?

The Brain: I don't know. That's, um, that's hard to keep track of.

Brendan Frye: Is it?

The Brain: It can be - it can be hard to keep track of those things because lunch - lunch is a lot of things, lunch is difficult.

The film follows the path of other 'classics' in the sense that it made very little film at the box office.  How many all-time great films were box office bombs when they came out?  The only quibble I have with it is the title.  I won't explain what the title means, as if you haven't seen the film I will let you figure that out for yourself.  But this remarkable film suffers from an unremarkable title.  And that does matter.  I liken it to another one of my favourite films, Steven Soderbergh's "Out of Sight".  Whenever I bring it up the conversation goes like this…

Me: "Have you seen 'Out of Sight'?"

Them: "What?  What movie is that?"

Me: "'Out of Sight'.  George Clooney, Jennifer Lopez, Don Cheadle…."

Them: "Oh yeah, that movie.  I love that movie too…"

The same thing happened when I mentioned to friends that I was going to write about "Brick".  "What movie is that?  Oh yeah, I love that movie".  But of course, that's a very minor nitpick. 

Otherwise, I love this film and the fact that it brings together film noir and the high school movie; two genres that you would think would never meet.  Also the main character Brendan isn't perfect; he's flawed like most film noir anti-heroes.  He loved Emily so much he pushed her away and in trying to win her back got another student in trouble, which may have sent him in a downward spiral and caused his death.  Brendan spends the film trying to make amends, while pushing people away who want to help him.  Ultimately he walks away, and at the end of the film we can only wonder if what he's done has helped at all, or only made things worse, for others, but mostly for himself.  The film ends ambiguously; after something is whispered into his ear that we can't hear, we don't know if Brendan moves on to with his life, be a happier person, or is now so messed up that he kills himself.  That kind of complexity, both in story, dialogue and characterization, is what makes a film great.

That's why I think that "Brick" is a Future Classic.