Star Wars homework: Brick (2005)

Brick movie poster

Part of the Star Wars homework project.

Star Wars connection: written and directed by Rian Johnson, the writer and director of Episode VIII and writer of Episode IX.

From having seen Looper, I was pretty sure going into this one that (1) it would be a mindfuck, and (2) I would love it. I was not disappointed.

The short-short take is that it’s a noir murder mystery set in a high school. I suppose comparisons to Veronica Mars are inevitable. Both feature unusually smart, well-spoken high school sleuths unraveling histories of iniquity that are surprisingly, satisfyingly complicated. Both are set in towns on the California coast where public high schools bring together teenagers from all levels of an otherwise economically segregated community. They even came out at roughly the same time – VM aired from the fall of 2004 through 2007. But all of these appear to be genuine coincidences, since Rob Thomas (VM) and Rian Johnson were developing both projects independently, and apparently as fairly quiet, personal projects, for a long time before they came to fruition.

And in fact, Brick and Veronica Mars feel very different. From reading around online I see that VM is referred to as a noir mystery but I would not have pegged it as such – more of a teen mystery with noir trappings. Whereas Brick is a noir mystery with teen trappings. It’s so noir that if you’re not familiar with the genre, you may spend the entire movie wondering what the hell is going on (and if you are familiar with the genre, you’ll know that is a central part of the appeal).

It’s so noir that it’s strengths and weaknesses are approximately the same as those of the genre itself.

To me, the major failing of many noir mysteries, including Brick, is that the plot only works because characters – especially the minor characters – behave predictably, almost to the point of being Pavlovian automatons. How many times in one of these stories does one of the main characters leak a specific piece of information to X, knowing that X will go tell Y who will then do Z? It may be fun to watch, but it’s not how real people act.

Also, it must be said – no teenagers in the world are as clever and articulate as the ones in Brick. Hell, no people are that articulate for that long. But that’s a trope of both noir mysteries and most teen fiction, so no surprises there. And indeed, it’s more fun to watch unnaturally clever, pretty people for two hours than to watch plodding, average ones, even in movies where rat-a-tat dialogue isn’t a selling point.

What about the movie’s strenghts? The stock noir characters (mastermind, goon, seductress, etc.) translate over very smoothly. Being set in a sunny California town, the movie sort of perches on the edge of the mid-20th-century Los Angeles noir tradition that served up genre-centric hits like Chinatown and LA Confidential and revisionist send-ups like The Big Lebowski.

A lot of reviewers don’t like the complex lingo used by the characters, and admittedly it does take some time to pick up everything that’s being said. That’s almost a noir trope in itself. And for me, the weird argot spoken by the jaded souls in teenage bodies, combined with the standard noir complexity of the plot, had the cumulative effect of worldbuilding in almost a science-fictional sense. As Stephen King once wrote in one of his “Pop of King” columns for Entertainment Weekly, “It doesn’t bear any resemblance to life as I know it, but damned if I can take my eyes off it.”

It is either ironic or deeply fitting that he was referring to Veronica Mars.

Star Wars verdict: I think it bodes quite well. At this point, Star Wars is kind of a genre unto itself, so Johnson’s ability to make an engaging story within the constraints of a genre with very particular tropes is a good sign. Because Brick is a noir, it’s also a sort of picaresque. Noir characters don’t grow, they just bounce off each other. If mapped out, the web of interactions will be complex but each individual interaction will be simple – indeed, so simple that the sleuth can start reaching in and fiddling with the machinery by the midpoint of the story. That facility with what we might call logistically complex stories will come in handy for Star Wars, and Johnson has shown elsewhere that he can write more complex characters that do develop over time. I am hopeful.

 

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