I have actor preoccupations. That part’s normal. I have certain actors for whom I will forgive any mistake, any bad indie film, any giant flop of a blockbuster, any career misstep, and (most importantly) even a handful of weak, dark, pointless characters. Johnny Depp comes to mind as the top of this list. There is another caste of actors that I chase like an addiction. It’s not because I like them all the time, or even that consistently. There’s just something there, deep in the wellsprings of the character, that only they would have found. Most of them have got eyes that tell you the whole movie in a single shot. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of these.
I see him everywhere. He does a lot of TV. “Look, it’s Cameron!” (‘who?’) “The kid from 3rd Rock!” (‘his name wasn’t Cameron’) “I know that. He was Cameron from 10 Things.” (‘huh?’) It was after 500 Days of Summer, though, that I started looking around for other characters that he had played. And I found a still shot of him. And it stupefied me. Still does. It was from a movie I had never heard of called Brick which was an indie film noir written and directed by the same guy. It’s a loser stackup for my taste in movies, if I ever saw one, but that shot was raw power. His eyelashes were in pain. It didn’t really ever matter if I was going to like this movie. I was going to watch it.
And I have.
I could spend an entire review talking about the number of still shots that this movie should have produced, and the precise character and detail that made them brilliant, but it would be like spending an entire review telling you about why I like chocolate. Let’s just leave it at: it’s really good.
Let’s get this out of the way. There’s a dead girl in the first scene. The tag lines all refer to finding a missing girl. It’s a bit disingenuous. We found her. First scene. Yeah. Brenden (Gordon-Levitt) answers a rapid-fire pay-phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (no, you’re not expected to keep up with the dialogue in the first pass) shortly after a ‘two days earlier’ cut. She needs help. Why is he the go-to guy for help? I’m actually not completely sure, but they did date, and she did know what she was doing when she called him. Unfortunately, she disappears and now he’s not helping an ex-girlfriend, he’s trying to find her in the first place. Even when she turns up dead two days later (you weren’t actually surprised, were you?), though, he’s not content to leave it. He wants to know what happened. He needs to know what happened to her and why, and nothing is going to stand between him and that knowledge. No danger, no intimidation, no injury, no drama-queen decking on makeup can convince him that this is a bad idea.
Brenden has all the reason and all the savvy of a rabid dog. He’s a loner by nature, or by history (I probably filled in more blanks than I actually had the plot to support, so I won’t speculate on what that history actually is), and he still loves Emily. When she gets herself in trouble, he has no real limitations on what he’s willing to do for her. In their one in-person conversation, he tells her that she can walk away from whatever life she’s gotten into, and he’ll take care of anything that follows her out. It’s the kind of powerful promise that no one can make and mean and know that they can make good on it, but he does all three. Even before the movie full of sacrifices, Brenden is convincingly capable. Don’t let the lanky build fool you. The director even put little, round glasses on him to amplify the effect. He’s an unstable rottweiler, and the contrast between his physique and his ability is awe-inspiring.
This bespectacled, khaki-jacket-wearing anti-hero is dropped into a seething pit of class warfare and drug-fueled dissonance also known as high school. Remember back when the most important thing you could know about someone was who they ate lunch with? Don’t be fooled, though, this is more of an Alice-in-Wonderland high school where the only people who exist are the evil archetypes of the ones you knew. It’s mostly just a convenient excuse to add an angst-flavor to the dialogue and send the characters home to comfortable middle-class houses at the end of the day. After that, what you’re left with is a fast-talking detective movie with a budding Dick Tracey accent. And lots and lots of fist fights.
Let’s not miss this: Brick isn’t a pretty movie. The fights are gutsy and un-artistic. Their purpose is as coarse as their implementation, and the injuries stack as the movie goes on. The druggies are witless and desperate, the drama department is serpentine and desperate, and the bullies are insecure, redundant, and desperate. Brick is not pretty, nor is it charming, but it is elegant. The mystery is clever and well-told. The relationships are intricate and reasonable. The intentional bleakness of the situation leaves a lasting impression whose footprint few movies match; this is a thoughtful movie. It accelerates the dialogue to make the characters sound even sharper than they would naturally be (and that’s not a low starting point, either), to leave time for Brenden to consider. Characters need time to think. It makes everything else they do more believable, and few rival Joseph Gordon-Levitt at staring just past the camera, mid-decision. I caught myself forgetting to breathe, waiting for the next plunge. Brace yourself. I was never disappointed.
- Would I see this movie opening weekend? I’m not sure how much more overwhelming it could be, on a big screen, and it’s a bit intimidating, but I’d be game to try.
- Will I watch this movie again? Without a doubt. The dialogue goes by too fast to keep up the first time; I figure I’m due for at least another couple of passes.
- Will I buy this movie? I honestly don’t know. I need to see how it settles, but there’s a good chance I’ll end up with it.