Why Brick Is Still Rian Johnson’s Best Movie
Brick is a masterpiece film directed by Rian Johnson, who gained recognition with his box office hit Knives Out franchise, several Breaking Bad episodes, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Looper. This movie is a neo-noir crime drama that pays homage to the genre, but with a modern twist. It revolves around Brendan, a loner high school student who receives a mysterious call from his ex-girlfriend Emily. Despite the typical noir set-up, Brendan’s unusual talent for problem-solving and his communications with the school’s assistant vice-principal Trueman make the story compelling.
Johnson’s clever use of analogies to different elements of the genre is commendable, as each social club in the high school represents the groups of city societies that exist within neo-noir films. The Pin and Tug are the drug baron and his top enforcer, respectively, who represent the more powerful gangsters seen in a neo-noir film. Laura Dannon, the mysterious “theater girl,” is the femme fatale. The use of the high school setting and coming-of-age elements make it a great way to bridge the gaps between generations.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers his best performance as Brendan, a tragic character trying to mask his emotions. The film’s concluding moment is a subtle acting moment that most actors of Gordon-Levitt’s comparative youth at the time wouldn’t have been able to pull off. The movie’s practical filmmaking skills prove that a mystery movie just needs great dialogue to work. Johnson’s screenplay is complex and explores the various dynamics between all the different players, making the story more understandable.
Brick is a low-key movie in comparison to the blockbuster films that Johnson would come to emulate, but it contains no less of his brilliance. It’s more than apparent that Johnson is one of the best storytellers of this generation, and fans of his work have been eagerly awaiting the next chapters in the Knives Out series. The deals are in place for Johnson to begin working on a third chapter in the series, which has proven to be a standalone success that not even the ridiculous detractors from his work on The Last Jedi can deny.
Brick hails from filmmaker Rian Johnsonwhose directorial debut allowed him to find later success with his Knives Out franchise, many of the best episodes of Breaking Bad (including Season 5’s “Ozymandias”), the divisively brilliant science fiction sequel Star Wars: The Last Jediand the brilliant sci-fi neo-noir film Looper. In his first collaboration with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Johnson explored the story of a high school loner who is searching for the disappearance of his ex-girlfriend. It’s a relatively low-key movie in comparison to the type of blockbusters that Johnson would come to emulate, but contains no less of his brilliance.
It’s more than apparent at this point that Johnson is one of the best storytellers of this generation, and fans of his work have been eagerly awaiting the next chapters in the Knives Out series after Glass Onion became a surprise box office hitdespite the fact that it was simultaneously available in theaters. The deals are in place for Johnson to begin working on a third chapter in the serieswhich has proven to be a standalone success that not even the ridiculous detractors from his work on The Last Jedi can deny. While Johnson’s best work may be ahead of him as he continues to add new films and television projects to his resume, he has never topped the pure brilliance of Brick.
The Modernized Neo-Noir Style
Brick is an homage to, but not a parody of, the neo-noir subgenre of crime movies. Gordon-Levitt stars as Brendan, a loner who receives a mysterious phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily Kostich (played heartbreakingly by future Lost star Emilie de Ravin). This is a set-up that many noir fans may be familiar with, as it’s often that hard-boiled detectives will receive a frantic phone call that initially introduces them to the mystery. The difference here is that Brendan isn’t a detective pursuing a big city, but rather a high schooler who has an unusual talent for solving problems. Instead of leveraging his skills to a local police station like a detective might if Brick was a more classical neo-noir, Brendan’s communications are with his school’s Assistant V.P. Trueman (Richard Roundtree).
It’s interesting that Johnson plays these elements straight; the audience is able to get invested in the story, and the character’s youthfulness doesn’t detract from what becomes a compelling mystery. It’s interesting to see how Johnson fits in various analogies to different elements of the genre, as each of the high school’s social clubs represents the groups of city societies that exist within neo-noir films. Instead of a femme fatale that belongs to an illustrious nightclub, Brendan must interrogate the mysterious “theater girl” Laura Dannon (Nora Zehetner).
A mysterious drug baron called “The Pin” (Lukas Haas) may be a teenager who only sells drugs to high school students, but he clearly represents the more powerful gangsters that would be seen in a neo-noir film; similarly, the Pin’s top enforcer “Tug” (Noah Fleiss) might represent a more powerful mafia man. The use of the high school setting and coming-of-age elements of the film make it a great way to bridge the gaps between generations. Younger movie fans that enjoy Gordon-Levitt’s high school films like 10 Things I Hate About You and Mysterious Skin might be interested in more classical cinema, as Brick certainly pays homage to Humphrey Bogart classics such as The Maltese Falcon, Dark Passage, In A Lonely Place, The Harder They Fall, and Key Largo among others.
Joseph Gordon Levitt’s Best Performance
It’s no surprise that after BrickGordon-Levitt and Johnson continued to work together. While Looper gave them both the chance to explore a more complex side of an assassin, and Gordon-Levitt has made very funny cameos in The Brothers Bloom, The Last Jediand Poker Face, Brick remains the best work that Gordon-Levitt has ever done as an actor. That’s no faint praise! Even outside of his work with Johnson, Gordon-Levitt has been praised for his work in Christopher Nolan’s action films Inception and The Dark Knight Risesthe dramatic comedies 500 Days of Summer and 50/50and even his directorial debut Don Jon.
Brendan is a tragic character; perhaps he loved Emily once, but now she’s just become another lost case that he can note in his career. Brendan is forced to hear about Emily’s various suitors, partners, and abusers, and Gordon-Levitt does a great job at showing how Brendan tries to mask his emotions. It’s clear that he’s trying to retain his seriousness, but his staunch reaction to the news about her also reflects his heartbreak.
The heartbreaking news that he receives from Laura in the film’s concluding moment are the type of subtle acting moments that most actors of Gordon-Levitt’s comparative youth at the time wouldn’t have been able to pull off; he has to show an almost bemused reaction to the inevitably that Emily was pregnant with his child, and that perhaps he should have been more emotional the entire time.
Great Practical Filmmaking
With a level of practical filmmaking skills that Johnson’s contemporaries like Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith would certainly respect, Brick proves that mystery movies just need great dialogue to work. Johnson’s screenplay is complex and spends a meticulous amount of time exploring the various dynamics between all of the different players; it’s almost overwhelming on an initial viewing, but multiple rewatches make the story more understandable.
Even within the complex narrative of the mystery, there are rare moments of humor and emotion. A scene between the Pin and Brendan as they reflect on the poetry of J.R.R. Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings as they walk across a beach is simply beautiful. The film also features an early sign of Johnson’s ability to create great action, as the standoff between Brendan and the Pin is just as exciting as the iconic duel between Rey and Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi.