Monday, February 22, 2010
Brendan Frye(Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is our teenaged Phillip Marlowe. And while he outwardly doesn't have much in common with Humphrey Bogart, he does manage to make his character believable. The set up is that Brendan's ex-girlfriend Em (Emilie de Ravin) is dead and he needs to find out the how and why of it. As with many good noirs, we start the film with a body, then pull back to fill in how Brendan arrived there. Brendan of course is a loner, doesn't belong to any cliques at the high school, but he can certainly take care of himself.
Gordon-Levitt's performance is really the key to this movie working. The rest of the cast is also great, which is fortunate, since balanced on such an absurd concept, even one bad performance could've soured the whole thing. Everyone in this movie plays their role straight and serious. But, it's the intensity of Gordon-Levitt's presence and his mastery of the noir styled snappy patter that allow us to believe the film. He's troubled, brooding, tough and not afraid to cause trouble to get the answers he wants. His only real ally is "The Brain" (Matt O'Leary) The Brain helps Brendan (and the audience) figure out some code words he overheard. As you might expect, the clues lead Brendan into conflict with the high school drug world.
Brendan's search starts with a panicked phone call from Em which he doesn't understand. Since he and Em had broken up he doesn't know who she's hanging around with (who she was "eating lunch with") Calling a number on an invitation he finds on Em's morror in the drama club dressing room, he gets himself an in with Laura (Nora Zenetner) the films femme fatale, who may or may not know exactly what Brendan wants, but at least knows someone who does. Laura brushes him off, so Brendan turns to beating on Dode, a small time druggie, and possibly Em's current boyfriend, for information. (and still not getting any.) He follows Dode and sees him meeting with Em, and tracks her down from there. She meets him just to tell him to forget about the phone call and let her go. The conversation reveals a lot about Brendan's character and the differences between the two of them:
Brendan Frye: So, what am I?
Emily: Yeah, I mean what are you? Just sitting back here, hating everyone? Who are you to judge anyone? God, I really loved you a lot. I couldn't stand it. I had to get with people. I couldn't have a life with you anymore.
Of course, even after this, Brendan can't let it go. Despite the fact that Em herself told him to forget about it, he's got his teeth into the mystery and needs to see what it's all about and he now has a mysterious symbol that Em dropped with "Midnight" written underneath it. He figures out the symbol in a dream just in time to find Em's body at the mouth of an open sewer tunnel in the morning. He hears someone else in the tunnel and heads towards the sound only to get punched in the dark before the unknown person runs away.
Brendan hides the body and resolves to figure out the story and make some people pay. He gets the idea that "The Pin" is connected to Em's demise, but he's not even certain that he exists. He decides that the easiest way to find him is to make trouble higher up the drug food chain, starting with Brad Bramish, (Brian J. White) the school football hero/drug dealer. To get the Pin's attention he gives Brad a good beating. He's rewarded by being knocked out in the street by Tugger (Noah Fleiss)
Brendan soon makes a deal with the vice principal, who he has a relationship with from having turned in a drug dealer in the past to protect Em (a favor that Em did not appreciate) He agrees not to bother him for anything he isn't caught at. Soon after,Tugger tracks him down again and after beating him up a bit, decides to bring him to the Pin.
The legandary Pin is older (26) and he has his own office (a finished basement in his Mom's house with little furniture other than a desk and an Eagle statue.) The Pin wants to know why he's looking for him. Brendan can't resist being a smart ass, so Tugger chokes him unconscious, although Laura appears in the background, telling Tugger to stop. The Pin realizes that Brendan was just proving he wasn't afraid of him and they sit down for apple juice (served by the Pin's mom) to get Brendan's story. Brendan claims he has a realtionship with the Vice Principal's office, which he's willing to let the Pin benefit from for a fee. The Pin lets him leave telling him they'll either hire him or rub him out by the end of the next day. Laura drives him back to school trying to convince Brendan to trust her. Brendan tells her, 'I trust you less now than when I didn't trust you before."
He's soon attacked by a mysterious guy with a knife. After Brendan knocks him out he's picked up by the Pin who tells him he's been accepted into their group. Brendan also gets a phone call from Dode who apparently saw him at the tunnel with Em's body and is now threatening to tell people about it. The Pin starts confiding in Brendan, telling him he's having trouble with Tugger and that he's having complications from the biggest deal he's ever done. Brendan plays up his doubts about Tugger. He breaks into the Pin's headquarter's and snooping around for clues he runs into Tugger who attacks him until Brendan manages to uncover some of Tugger's doubts about the Pin. Tugger reveals that they had trouble with a missing "Brick" (heroin) Tugger claims not to know who Em is. The Pin comes home afterwards and reveals that Tugger thought Em was his girl and that someone wants to set up a meeting with the Pin to sell them information about Em's whereabouts. He then gives Brendan a piece of paper similiar to the one that Em had the day she died to set up a meeting at the tunnel.
Brendan knows it's Dode setting up the meeting and asks Laura to keep an eye out and signal him with the horn when Dode shows. Brendan runs into Dode before the meeting and tries to tell him he's in over his head. Dode however is obsessed with making Brendan pay, revealing that Em was pregnant. With The Pin, Tugger and Brendan present, Dode tries to taunt Brendan without naming him to make sure he gets paid for the information. He manages to accidentally anger Tugger, who snaps and kills Dode. Brendan is now forced to play on The Pin and Tugger's loyalties as the Pin has now had enough of Tugger's hothead behavior and doesn't want to be implicated for murder. Brendan sets up a meeting between them, ostensibly to try and help them part ways amicably. Laura is never far away either, still trying to convince Brendan that she's on his side. He has the Brain set up a bust at the same time the meeting occurs. At the meeting Brendan acts as mediator. Things inevitably fall apart as Tugger and Pin and their two sides start fighting over the Brick (which it is discovered is missing) Brendan walks away in the middle of their fight as the cops are about to show.
He sets up a meeting with Laura on the football field. He claims that he wasn't at the meeting and Laura tells him the Pin and Tugger are dead and there was a girl's body in Tugger's trunk (Em). Brendan reveals that while Tugger killed Em, it was Laura who caused the events that killed Em. She had stolen half the Brick and cut it with junk, sending a guy into a coma. She then pinned it onto Em, and later got Tugger upset knowing that he'd get mad and snap when he found out she was pregnant. He then lets her know that he's given a note to the vice principal telling him everything and that the missing Brick is in her locker. While they're talking we see the locker being opened and the brick is there. Laura can't resist getting in a final twist and reveals that Em wasn't planning to keep the baby because she didn't love the father and that she was three months along making it Brendan's kid.
I think that one reason the movie works is that it's true to both the noir experience and the high school experience. Seeing these characters in parts that are obviously too old for them reminds me how seriously high school students take themselves, and how overwhelming the experience can be. The Pin in particular is portrayed as both a drug kingpin and a kid trying to appear as a drug kingpin. While his cloak and his cane with a duck head would seem odd for a traditional kingpin, for the Pin, his look is all about how he wants to see himself. Brendan's character is able to start bawling in one scene remembering Emily as he goes to bed. Phillip Marlowe wouldn't have been able to get away with that. But since the age allows more vulnerability, Brendan can do this awithout appearing weak. He thinks he has everything figured out, but he can't do the one thing he wanted to, which was to protect Em.
While I don't think Brick is intended to be a strict metaphor for the high school experience, I think that there are elements in the film that work in that way. By borrowing the truth of the high school experience to inform the noir experience, we end up with an effective take on both.There are a few laughs in the film at these characters trying to fit into older shoes, (particularly at the Pin's house) but the seriousness doesn't go away because of them. The story is life or death to the characters, and young or not, nobody gets away clean. Rian Johnson makes an amazing film, particularly so, since it's based on quite a risky proposition.