Falling squarely among the latter "Neo Noir" set is Rian Johnson's 2005 sophomore endeavour, Brick. Based on a novella by Johnson and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as jaded protagonist Brendan Frye, Brick adheres to the same old whodunit shtick of private dicks, dames in distress, dead bodies, criminal masterminds, and a decided lack of trustworthy folks. It's a given that the genre is irredeemably trope-ridden, and that anyone even remotely familiar with its shady bag of lighting tricks and old-hat plot devices can easily guess the resolution within the first half-hour of viewing.
What sets Brick apart is its seemingly willful absurdity. For one thing, the film is set at the local high school in San Clemente, CA, with the primus motor being the sudden disappearance of Brendan's ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Appearing to be little more than a bad case of truancy following a messy break-up, Emily's AWOL status is the mere tip of an iceberg of violence, obsession, addiction, and well-organized drug-running that involves nearly every major player on campus. The jocks, the preps, the pushers, the stoners, the theatre folk—it's a nasty web of interconnected lies and localized bogeymen, all leading back to a shadowy figure known only as The Pin.
Suspension of disbelief is a must-have to enjoy Brick, especially once the dialogue starts moving at full-swing. If you thought that the Nadsat of A Clockwork Orange was confusing, just wait 'til Brendan and his friend-turned-informant, The Brain (Matt O'Leary), start hashing out the who's, what's, and where's of the film's convoluted plot. It's one thing to not recognize a word and know that you don't recognize it; it's another to hear familiar words made foreign by casual slangification. Here's a taste:
"Ask any dope rat where the junk's spraying and they'll say they scraped it off that, who scored it off this, who bought it off someone; after four or five connections, the list always ends with The Pin. But I betcha you got every rat in town together and said show your hands if any of 'em actually seen The Pin, we'd get a crowd of full pockets."
The dialogue is remarkably well-written, in that every character manages to come across as both concise and exceptionally well-educated. Droll quips abound, but their pith is thrown into question by the fact that everyone is in high school. This is not to say that all teenagers are slack-jawed hooligans without the benefit of a dictionary and a thesaurus, but realism—that is, the typical stutter-step slang and mumbled utterances of your average American youth—certainly takes a back seat to Johnson's story. Even though the characters are near-entirely in their teens, you never see them in class, or doing homework, or in the company of a responsible adult. Maybe San Clemente is a Montessori school, but I can’t say that one way or another with any degree of certainty.
Like Charlie Brown, you begin to wonder how these kids survived so long, and how they grew up so damn fast. Everyone is a con artist with an ace or six of cryptic information tucked safely up their sleeves, from upperclassman theatre maven Kara (Meagan Good) to seductive debutante Laura (Nora Zehetner) and burnt-out punker Dode (Noah Segan). Yet, one by one, even their best-played word games and craftiest diversions fall before Brendan's determined angst and near-suicidal tendencies, such as picking fights with football player Brad Bramish (Brian J. White) and sociopathic pusher Tug (Noah Fleiss) before finally coming face to face with the elusive Pin (Lukas Haas).
If you can ignore all of the inconsistencies—modern-day teens without cell phones, a near-complete lack of parents and teachers (and police), and a high school drama department that manages to produce several high-quality shows in the span of a few weeks—Brick is a nice addition to the greater Film Noir oeuvre. Rian Johnson's script is well-served by his direction; his camera work is fairly straightforward and his framing intuitive, so scenes are well-paced, short on glitz, and full of colour and warmth. It's a fun film, and at times even funny, but most likely not the best introduction to the genre.