Brick [retro review]

“I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.”

The Scoop: 2005 R, directed by Rian Johnson and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, and Emilie de Ravin

Tagline: A detective story.

Summary Capsule: The murder of his ex-girlfriend sends wordy detective Brendan into the shady underworld of high school.

Justin’s Rating: Can a gumshoe be your personal role model?

Justin’s Review: Classic film noir primer: Hard-boiled detective. Femme fatale. Tragic love interest. Dry-pan discussions straight from a thesaurus. Cigarettes. Shady places. Gangsters. Underworld law. Betrayals. Informants. Secrets. Drugs. Sex. Murder. And a bittersweet ending you (hopefully) didn’t see coming.

Brick is a film that’s labeled “neo-noir”, which is to say “it’s basically film noir but we really like The Matrix“. It has all of the above elements. The only difference is… it takes place at a modern-day Californian high school.

You heard me.

I got whiff of this little mystery thriller from a few mentions on the MRFH forums, and I’m in the debt of those folks for a solid night’s worth of entertainment. Any movie which leaves me stalking around my apartment, chewing on a toothpick while narrating the events in a voice-over (“My dame came home, her eyes piercing and aloof. She asked me to carry her groceries and I told her to suck a lemon. My new address is P.O. Box: My Couch.”) is a good time had by me.

It’s a bit silly and surreal to see this genre transplanted to an unexpected locale, but the makers of Brick realized that if all the stories have already been told, might as well give the old ones some new flavor. Thus, we are asked, with a straight face, to take the premise of a high school detective on a case to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend seriously. Don’t laugh, or he might monologue your lips off.

Smarty pants Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is having a weird week. His ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) came to him for protection from some unspeakable threat, then backed away from him just as fast after a few cryptic clues. A day later, and she’s floating in a drain pipe. Being the stubborn rogue and upholding a long-standing tradition of obstinate P.I.s, Brendan vows to get to the bottom of it all, even if it means shaking up the carefully structured societies that have grown up around the school. He enlists the help of his informant Brain (Matt O’Leary) and a mysterious girl (Nora Zehetner) to talk, punch and scheme his way into the school’s underworld. “Leaving well enough alone” might just be the only words not in his vocabulary.

It’s been noted that none of the characters from this movie are that sympathetic, mostly because they seem to occupy the roles of noir stereotypes; yet at least for me, this didn’t make their story any less intriguing. I wanted to learn the big secret(s), and viewing this flick felt like turning the pages of a worn detective novel from the 40’s, cracked and yellowed with age. After a while, you begin to forget that adults even exist in this universe, and the idea of a drug kingpin dealing an empire from the basement of his mommy’s home becomes quite plausible. This is not a realistic universe, but one necessary to tell the tale.

Film noir seems to be making a big comeback in the last decade or so (see: Memento, Sin City), and even though Brick lacks the big budget or star power to carry this into the mainstream, it’s an honorably decent and innovative movie that is certainly worthy of being part of the genre. The dialogue crackles with underused archaic slang, and Brendan strikes a right note as a guy who’s tough, capable, and yet not invincible or perfect. Slide on down to your local picture show and pop in a buffalo to see this treat.

Any minor league crime boss would do well by putting a full-sized shade lamp in his van.


  • The horn signal Brendan instructs Laura to give him (long, short, long, short) is the same as the doorbell signal Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy he’ll use in The Maltese Falcon. Brendan’s earlier line to Laura, “Now you are dangerous,” is taken from the film as well.
  • As Brendan enters the Halloween in January party, a girl with long hair passes by with a cooler on wheels. This is the main character from the movie “May”, which director Rian Johnson edited.
  • The movie contains a number of references to Dashiell Hammett stories. For instance, at the end of the film, the antagonist whispers “a dirty word” to the protagonist. A similar occurrence can be found in the Hammett story “The Girl With The Silver Eyes”.
  • The telephone booth seen throughout the film is a non-functioning set piece.
  • The film was shot in director Rian Johnson’s home town, and the high school featured is the one he attended himself. He wrote the original screenplay in 1997. It took him six years in order to fund the project.
  • Vanessa writes in, “In the novella, Laura’s penultimate lines about Emily wanting to abort Brennan’s baby because she didn’t love him, aren’t included, which (to my mind, anyway) indicate that Laura was blowing smoke in order to hurt him – and judging by the look on his face afterward, it worked.”

Groovy Quotes

Brendan Frye: Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night, that puts me six up on the lot of you.

The Brain: Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it from that, who scored it from this, who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin. But I bet you, if you got every rat in town together and said “Show your hands” if any of them’ve actually seen The Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets.

Laura Dannon: Do you trust me now?
Brendan Frye: Less than when I didn’t trust you before.

Laura: Why’d you take a powder the other night?
Brendan Frye: Same reason I’m taking one now… Look, I’m not heeling you to hook you.

Brendan Frye: No more of these informal chats! If you have a disciplinary issue with me, write me up or suspend me and I’ll see you at the Parent-Teacher conference.

Kara: You better be sure you wanna know what you wanna know.

Brendan Frye: Maybe I’ll just sit here and bleed at you.

Brendan Frye: I’ve got knives in my eyes, I’m going home sick.

Brendan Frye: The ape blows or I clam.

Brendan Frye: All right, you got me. I’m a scout for the Gophers. Been watching your game for a month, but that story right there just clenched it. You got heart kid. How soon can you be in Minneapolis?
Brad Bramish: Yeah?
Brendan Frye: Cold winters, but they got a great transit system.
Brad Bramish: Yeah?
Brendan Frye: Yeah.
Brad Bramish: Oh, yeah?
Brendan Frye: There’s a thesaurus in the library. Yeah is under “Y”. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

The Brain: What did she whisper to you?
Brendan Frye: She called me a dirty word.
The Brain: All right, you don’t have to tell me.

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • The Maltese Falcon
  • Sin City
  • Memento


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