‘BRICK’ IS A surprising experiment. It would have been so even if not first mistaken for an offbeat comedy, which it is decidedly not. There is a perpetual undertone of grim humor, though, that makes its sinister drama all the more unsettling. And something else is odder still. When we see adult characters do such awful things to one another and make such costly mistakes it is somehow ‘okay’, or at least fathomable without invoking much viewer skepticism. But when the players are (supposed to be) teenagers the same actions seem far more ghastly. “What went wrong?” we wonder, wringing our hands in existential angst.
This, of course, is absurd. If anything, adults are the ones who should know better than to let a red herring like the Brick tear all of their lives apart. They should also know better than to recite such awful poetry. But in either context, ‘Brick’ would be a queer kind of downer: funny sometimes for being miserable, and miserable because it’s sometimes funny.
The film’s displaced homage is the source of this tension, this edge. ‘Brick’ is a rewrite of 1940s gumshoe detective films, replete with the nicknamed cronies, jaded protagonist, ethereal damsel loved and lost, manifold plot turns, and snappy, jargon-filled dialogue. That it is homage is ‘Brick’s best feature and its fatal flaw. Without these quirks, it could have devolved into a self-aggrandizing Lifetime cautionary drama. With them, it is more intellectual, certainly more enjoyable, but never fully satisfying.
Wiseguy characterizations worked for 40s detective tales because they concerned actual wiseguys. This film features young actors pretending to be wiseguys. The dialogue of the original era worked because it was scintillating while still being vaguely authentic; in ‘Brick’, the lingo is ironic. Irony for its own sake—the catechism of the millennial generation—is the surest way for modern independent film to achieve instant acclaim and immediate irrelevance.
For all that, ‘Brick’ was still a worthwhile realization of Rian Johnson’s burgeoning vision. A tour through the deleted scenes reveals his quick growth, even as the film was being made. Each cut made the film a little leaner, a little less didactic (both in artistry and plot), and more efficient. ‘Brick’ is best when the actors drop their pretense of guile or their affectation of what they imagine adulthood to be, and instead exist truly, as confused and wounded children. These moments are three, and fleeting. First, when Brendan and Emily, once lovers, now strangers, reach to one another and cry. This embrace is more effective than the turgid dialogue that surrounds it and is one of the few reasons that any of Brendan’s following actions are validated. Second, when The Brain and Brendan walk together on a beach. They discuss the increasing volatility of The Brain’s muscleman, Tugger, and in a brief exchange before the cutaway, The Brain talks at Brendan about Tolkien. This juxtaposition is the best representation in the entire film of the distance between characters and the loneliness they endure. Lastly, as The Brain is beaten to death by Tugger, his ragged cry for Brendan’s help. No cute names, no games, no posturing. Though The Brain is not even on the screen when we hear him call out, in that moment we can see him best.
And that is because the characters in ‘Brick’ are not looking for the Brick at all, but love. None of them finds it.