School of Noir

The deadpan cool of Rian Johnson’s Brick.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Brick

My ticket to Brick (Focus Features) came accompanied by a cute little booklet titled “Brick Talk: An Insider’s Glossary to the Unique Verbal Style of the Highly Acclaimed Detective Movie by Rian Johnson.” There can be no quarrel with the “highly acclaimed” claim; Johnson’s debut film, which opened in limited release last month and is now opening nationwide, is getting justly recognized as one of those movies than seems not made but born—a small masterpiece that’s perfectly strange and strangely perfect. And no one could mistake it for anything other than a detective movie: Going two or three steps further than Veronica Mars—the UPN show that retools conventional P.I. themes and delivers a delicious post-Buffy girl-power allegory— Brick fully melds the snaking plots and sneaky moods of the Chandler-Hammett school to a tale of drugs and betrayal among modern teenagers.

Of course! Given the deep alienation, byzantine intrigues, and odd alliances on offer during your average high-school lunch period, it’s an ideal setting for a noir. And that, to nitpick, is the problem with this pamphlet’s promise of decoding a “unique verbal style.” A “gat” is a gun, we’re told, and a “shamus” is a private detective, and “copped” means stole. And have you heard that Jack Nicholson is starring in a great new movie called Chinatown? The pleasure of listening to this argot has nothing to do with its nonexistent novelty. On the contrary, the kick comes from hearing the old-school slang spring from the mouths of contemporary babes. Even better, the wonderful actors here read their highly stylized lines—”Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head. I want him out”—in a way that comes to sound natural fast.

Our Bogart is named Brendan, a loner played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt with a tenacious scowl and superlative slouch. (It helps, somehow, that Gordon-Levitt looks like Keanu Reeves, especially when his shabby bangs are brushed out of his eyes; the actors share an attractive blankness.) A flashback at the top of the movie finds him discovering a pretty corpse in a nasty trickle of water—shades of Chinatown and Twin Peaks. The dead girl is Emily (Emilie de Ravin), Brendan’s ex-girlfriend. Two days before, she had begged him, vaguely, for help by way of a note in his locker and a phone-booth rendezvous, and then, even more vaguely, told him to disregard that fuss. While Brendan is no stranger to controlled substances, whatever’s eating Em likely has to do with the time she’s spending with a pothead punk, a hopped-up football star, and the flunkies of a suburban drug lord.

Brick being Brick, the Scarface figure (“The Pin”) has a cape, a limp, and a cane with an imitation duck’s head on its handle. He also lives at home and sometimes conducts negotiations over cookies and juice served by his mother. Johnson connects the dots between Brendan and The Pin in a way that seems first odd, then surprising, then perfectly inevitable. The plot’s tight, but I suspect that the movie would still sail along quite nicely even it weren’t. Like the best noirs, Brick is a triumph of attitude, and there’s no arguing that its brand of deadpan cool is precisely unique.