Since Labour Day marks the beginning of the school year for a whole bunch of people (and this year is my child’s first year of preschool) I’m going to spend this week revisiting some school-themed movies. Should be fun.
Close your eyes and listen to the dialogue and cadence of Brick and you are instantly transported to the film noirs of the 40s and 50s where the investigators are hardboiled, the women are vamps, the criminals are evil, and the heroes not much better. But open your eyes and you’ll find yourself not in the shadowy streets of a crime-ridden city but in the middle of a California high school. As far as metaphors go, comparing the film noir to high school is certainly an interesting one.
The film starts, as a lot of these film noirs do, with a dead body, a mystery, and one man (boy?) with enough smarts and motivation to solve it. The man is Brendan (Joseph Gordon Levitt), the body is that of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), and the mystery is how she ended up face down in a storm drain. The success of this movie depends on how quickly you can buy the idea of a teenager as a hardboiled detective, and fortunately Joseph Gordon Levitt delivers in spades. He believably portrays Brendan channeling his best Humphrey Bogart by being the wise-craking smartest guy in the room, stirring things up to unearth the truth behind the murder-mystery, and always being one step ahead of the others.
Because Levitt is so believable as a film-noir detective, the rest of the movie clicks into place. The school stoners become an opium den. The jock’s girlfriend becomes the femme fatale. The VP of the school becomes the cops. These early moments of the movie when Brendan is hot on the trail confronting different suspects and breaking down doors is easily the best of the movie because of the delightful ways Rian Johnson mirrors film noir conventions but in the much more domesticated settings of high school. But it is also a satisfying crime mystery in its own right forcing us deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole of sordidness and grime as Brendan brings to light more and more things hiding in the shadows.
Unfortunately, the further the crime story advance the less believable the story is in its high school setting. By the time Brendan has fallen into the den of a the 16-year old drug lord The Pin (Lukas Haas) and his henchman Tugger (Noah Fliess) the movie starts to feel like a bunch of high school kids play-acting film noir rather than actual believable human beings. The emotional depth that Rian Johnson is trying to achieve falls flat because it becomes increasingly obvious that the main players are characters in a movie. The cracks especially start to show once the film veers into its sudden violent conclusion that is so far removed from any believable high school setting.
Yet as a simple film noir this film succeeds. The atmosphere is pinpoint in its acerbity and the razor sharp dialogue helps to create characters straight out of the archetypes of film noir. The crime at the centre of it is suitably dark, and the truth is ugly once it is brought to light. This film is a great film noir. What it is not however, is a believable high school movie.