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Rian Johnson’s Brilliant First Feature Transcends Its High-Concept Gimmick

"I've got knives in my eyes. I'm going home sick."

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What if modern-day high schoolers talked and acted like they were in a ‘50s hardboiled noir? It’s an intriguing premise for a short film, but it doesn’t seem like a gimmick strong enough to sustain a two-hour feature. And yet, with his 2005 directorial debut, Rian Johnson not only manages to turn a unique idea into a thoroughly engaging feature film, he actually transcends a potentially labored gimmick to produce something wholly original.

Shot on a $450,000 budget at Johnson’s own high school, Brick is a high-concept indie in every respect. The film draws inspiration from the works of Dashiell Hammett (the author of such novels as The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man) and transplants them into a contemporary California suburb populated by bored, privileged teens. The one outsider is Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a Sam Spade-esque loner who finds himself drawn into a sinister conspiracy after receiving a cryptic phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) the day before she’s found dead. Tracing Emily’s steps, Brendan encounters kingpins, teenage femme fatales, and a missing “brick” at the center of it all.

Brick finds the sweet spot at the intersection of early aughts teen culture (chipped matte nail polish! Heavy under-eye makeup! Shaggy hair! Full-rim glasses!) and the dark, measured mood of a classic Golden Age noir. It’s a movie where jocks and popular girls hold stuffy parties, sip champagne, and make grand speeches about gaming the system; where backdoor deals are held in the dusty hallways behind the gym; and where Rian Johnson develops a taste for camera tricks (case in point: this totally wild reverse dolly zoom).

Brick manages to synthesize all its influences — from Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns to Chinatown to Cowboy Bebop — into something truly singular. It helps that Johnson, in his first feature, displays the kind of visual confidence of a more seasoned director (or maybe just the gall of a rising director trying to prove himself), relying heavily on in-camera effects and smash cuts.

A movie built around such a high-execution gimmick shouldn’t be so good.

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But the film might largely work because of the talented cast led by a truly remarkable Gordon-Levitt. Fresh off his teenybopper era as the star of sitcoms like 3rd Rock From the Sun, Gordon-Levitt was still proving himself as a serious indie actor. In Brick, he channels the world-weary cynicism of Humphrey Bogart in his haunted, angry portrayal of a guy whose favorite book is definitely Catcher in the Rye. He’s supported by Matt O'Leary's nebbish fellow outsider, The Brain; alongside a beguiling Nora Zehetner as the rich popular girl/femme fatale, Laura Dannon, who helps Brendan enter the film’s seedy underworld. Even some of the more arch performances like Lukas Haas’ turn as The Pin feel of a piece with Brick, which is so stylized and specific you can’t help but be immersed in this strange world of hyper-articulate teens and shady deals gone bad.

Almost two decades after its release, the novelty of Brick might have worn off a little. But revisiting the movie in a post-Knives Out world reveals just how fully formed Rian Johnson was as a director right out the gate — and just how much he still crafts his films around his very first one. Brick was always more than just a gimmick or a fun experiment. It’s a template by which one of our most inventive contemporary directors continues to make his movies and keeps innovating in exciting new ways.

Brick is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.

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