By Caroline Nelson ‘16Film Columnist
For those of you with Netflix Watch Instantly and a desire to explore some of the more obscure titles offered, here are some great alternatives to homework (not that the Scripps Voice in any way advocates that kind of procrastination).
Fascinating and flawed, Rian Johnson’s Brick is a cinematic achievement, a neo-noir that effectively captures the gritty energy of the genre as opposed to recycling and glossing over its stock tropes.
The film's labyrinthine plot centers around a teenage loner (played by the remarkable Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his determination to bring to justice those responsible for his ex-girlfriend’s murder. His quest leads him through several circles of high school hell populated by vamps, thugs, and drug dealers. Despite its kudzu like appearances, and the general incomprehensibility of the first half of the film, the plot is smart and tightly constructed.
The film was made on a shoestring budget and edited by Johnson on his computer, but this isn’t terribly obvious and when it is, it's part of the charm. The whole thing is at its strongest visually. Both the editing and sound design are exceptional. The compositions are inspired and the camera work is suburb. Even many effects that run the risk of looking amateurish only add to the interest.
Brick is grounded by a strong lead performance. Though Gordon-Levitt might seem like an odd choice for a modern take on a Bogart tough guy, he possesses a quiet intensity that makes him interesting even when his character seems like a classic noir somnambulist. All the actors give believable natural performances, most notably Emilie de Ravin as the protagonist’s doomed love, and Meagan Good as a cold, controlled vamp in the same class as Barbara Stanwyck. The one disappointing piece of acting comes from Nora Zehetner who does not convey the edge or the sense of danger necessary for her femme fatale, the appropriately named Laura.
The movie is darkly bizarre with more than a hint of David Lynch among all the Wilder, Huston, and Polanksi. But unlike Lynch, the surreal takes such a backseat to the hard-boiled that those touches often hit a wrong note.
Another major problem with the film is the dialogue. Johnson deliberately had his teenagers speak in the language of pulp from the '20s and '30s. Though great things have been done with elevated or heavily stylized speech, in this case, it simply doesn’t work. Writers like Chandler and Hammett have dated so badly, they sound like parodies of themselves a good deal of the time. This means that any 21st century attempt to emulate their work is doomed to fail. That is not to say that the film lacks some good one liners or great scenes, but much of the dialogue would have sounded silly coming from Sam Spade to a district attorney, let alone a kid to an assistant vice principle. It also makes it jarring when the characters switch into contemporary speak every now and again (for instance a scene where the head drug dealer asks Brandon if he likes Tolkien).
The high school setting is its next greatest flaw. Not only do the characters not talk like teenagers, they don’t act like them either. None of them seem to go to class and the entire school appears to deal drugs to the point where it is deeply surprising that any of the characters can read. Also it seems absurdly hard for one person to locate another, as if the campus were the size of L.A. The whole thing would make a great deal more sense if everyone was in their twenties. The other issue is that the story taking place in a high school seems like a waste of the setting. Brick is a great mystery, but one that could easily feature a private detective rather than a kid who eats lunch alone. Noir’s main themes are alienation, paranoia, and entrapment. So in a word all of the things that characterize the high school experience. One of Rian Johnson’s mistakes is not making greater use of that connection.