Brick from Rian Johnson

“Brick” is the debut film of Rian Johnson, director of “Looper” and “The Last Jedi”. I discovered this movie a long time ago (it is now 15 years old). I remembered how impressed I was with the directing. So naturally, I thought it was worth watching it again. It is a murder mystery story with the particularity to be set in a high school. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival where it won The film won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision in 2015. The year after it was released in theaters a making almost $4 million with a low budget of $500,000.

The story

The first shot shows Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) discovering a body in a tunnel who turned out to be his former girlfriend Emily Kostich (Emilie de Ravin). We discover then that this scene is actually a flash-forward, happening 2 days after the real “beginning” of the story. Brendan finds a note in his high school locker where Emily invites him to a payphone at a specific hour. Emily asks Brendan for help even though what she says makes little sense. 

From that moment Brendan wants to help her and looks for her. He unveils a few clues he finds along the way with the help of The Brain (Matt O’Leary) (the classic sidekick to any good detective like Watson to Sherlock). He finally discovers a big drug network and dark truths. 

The whole story was hard for me to understand, even as the second time because of the ’40s noir dialogues. The vocabulary used was understandable (“bulls” for “cops”; “yegg” for “criminal”, “knives in my eyes” for “a headache”) but their pace was very fast, like a tennis table game we would say in French! 

This way o speaking added nevertheless an extra dimension to the mystery, making it more intense. I must admit I figured who was the true culprit of Emily’s murder pretty quickly even though the motive of the crime escaped me until the end. 

The actors’ performances are perfect, in particular Joseph Gordon Levitt’s. If the main actor would have been anything less, the dialogues would have sounded odd or ridiculous. 

The Brilliant directing 

The true star of “Brick” is the directing. The film embarks you from the first scene. The aesthetic of it, the eerie music (composed by Rian Johnson’s brother Nathan), Brendan’s lifeless face expression, and the close-ups on the different elements of Emily’s corpse to the bracelet transition to the next scene.

Rian Johnson said about this scene:

“I know that when I see something traumatic, I don’t really process it in the moment, but I store it with an intense amount of detail and then watch the memory of it very carefully. Those disconnected, weirdly beautiful pieces of Emily are not what Brendan would see from his vantage point, but they feel like what he’d remember from the scene.”

 (reference here)

A few scenes after, when Brendan has his payphone rendezvous, the filming is also impeccable: the shot of the car coming, the cigarette shot next to Brendan’s shoe, the close up on the cigarette and its distinctive mark. I understand why so many critics were amazed that this was the director’s first film. 

Some of the shots that I love in this movie are the really wide ones. The director said:

Visually, I remember consciously trying to use the camera to put you in Brendan’s head. For most of the movie, that meant wide lenses and solid, smooth moves, a clarity and purpose to each shot.”

(reference here). 

It is exactly that: I remember that very good scene where Tug comes as Brendan tries to break into his car. Brendan is carrying a big rock above his head and there is a wide shot of Tug coming. This wide shot and the length of his arrival adds so much tension to the scene and some comedy as well.

In the same way, when Tug leaves the parking lot, the camera focuses back to Brendan. In a predictable movie, it would call for the end of the scene. But then the scene lasts, it is back to a really wide shot which you don’t understand the purpose at first. Until you see Tug driving back at great speed, which seems to be “your” direction. 

You could take an example like that for every scene as all the shots are so well thought and still original, all to make you “feel” this movie. Some first films have flaws. Some tend to be too zealous and showing off everything they can do without any benefits to the story, but not here.

The confidence in this first film is quite incredible. He also cleverly cuts his movie to remedy the lack of budget in fighting scenes for instance. You need some talent to do that without making it look laughable. 

Conclusion

To sum up, “Brick” is 110 minutes movie packed with clever and beautiful shots. It has great actors’ performances and a beautiful score. I didn’t like the screenplay as much. The drug network didn’t feel so threatening or making total sense to me and the plot twist didn’t really surprise me. But it is definitely a film I would recommend to watch especially for aspiring directors looking for inspiration.

Let me know in the comments what you thought of the movie and let’s discuss it! 

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