Tuesday, August 29, 2006

In case you missed it...Brick!

Every film genre has its collection of cinematic devices which filmmakers use to frighten, thrill or woo viewers. The Horror film has its shower scene. The Romance has its falling in love montage. There are as many examples as there are film genres and in fact the easiest way to define a particular film genre is by listing the common devices used. Filmmakers employ these devices as if they were the wrenches and hammers of a handyman. Just as I would not expect to see the superintendent of my apartment building tighten a leaky faucet with a hammer, filmgoers do not expect to see an arming-of-the-hero sequence in a documentary.

These devices are occasionally used by filmmakers to manipulate viewers into a false sense of security by building expectations which the film then subverts. Million Dollar Baby hid its Family Drama behind an Against-All-Odds facade and wept with duped viewers all the way to the Academy Awards.

However, more often than not these devices are used to cobble together the many movies which fill the large gaps between genre defining classics. Every month the same four or five Movies-By-Numbers seem to open in theaters around the country. They have different titles and different actors but you can set your watch by their car chases or explosions of gore. These films turn the devices of their respective genres into cliches. As a fan of film–and genre films in particular–I have been disheartened by the shift towards the homogenized cliche-fest that the contemporary genre film has become.

Which is why I was so pleasantly surprised when I popped Brick into the DVD player. From the opening scene, wherein an attractive young girl lies dead in a drainage ditch while a battered young man stands crouched over her prone form, Brick carries viewers on a journey to all the familiar stops of the Detective story without ever allowing its cinematic elements to turn into cliches.

The film follows Brandon, played with equal parts mumble and explosion by 3rd Rock From the Sun’s Joseph Gordon Levitt, as he searches for the murderer of his troubled ex-girlfriend. First time writer/director Rian Johnson places the characters in a world whose only two adult characters have about a minute of film time each. The result is a kind of Neverland–except instead of characters who never want to grow up, these kids seem to have never been children in the first place. Instead of seedy back alleys the characters slink and stumble around the local High School whose Vice Principal, rendered impotent by bureaucracy and corruption, is the equivalent of the local Sheriff or Assistant D.A. of the Detective film. Instead of a warehouse by the docks the local Kingpin holds court in his mother’s basement. (She serves milk while the rival gangs decide whether or not to go to war.) The seductress is literally a high school drama queen.

The use of teenage characters in the place of adults might have struck viewers as gimmicky if it were the only remarkable element of the film. However, the stylized dialogue, while occasionally stretching verisimilitude, fills this fantasy world with characters who actually have something interesting to say. The banter is something the viewer enjoys rather than endures.
Detective films are often classified as Film Noir. The word ‘noir’ stems from the french word for black. Undeniably, the desired tone for the Detective film is a sense of dark hopelessness. While Brick occasionally makes use of heavy shadow to display its bleakness, the darkness in Brandon’s life is represented on screen as the empty landscape of a high school with virtually no students, a teenage wasteland whose darkness is the absence of any color or joy. With that in mind, I can’t help but wonder why it took so long for someone to place a Detective film in a High School.

If you missed Brick in theaters–which is highly likely considering the film did not play in Greensboro theaters–it is now available on DVD. You owe it to yourself to check it out.

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