Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)

criterion logoThe Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Brick.

Teenage loner Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) searches for answers when the girl he loves turns up dead.  With only a handful of clues, he plunges into the dangerous underworld of his suburban high school community and becomes embroiled in a mysterious drug deal gone bad.  A winner for Originality of Vision at the Sundance Film Festival and a modern cult classic, Rian Johnson’s début feature is a hard-boiled tribute to the crime fiction of Dashiell Hammett faithfully and stylishly relocated to an unexpected setting.

Disc Features:

  • New, restored high-definition digital transfer, supervised by Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio Soundtrack on the Blu-ray edition
  • Audio commentary by Johnson, actors Noah Segan and Nora Zehetner, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen and costume designer Michele Posch
  • Deleted and extended scenes, with introductions by Johnson
  • Building Brick, a 46 minute documentary on the making of the film
  • The Inside Track: Casting the Roles of Laura and Dode, an examination of Brick‘s audition tapes
  • Scoring Brick, composer Nathan Johnson on creating the film’s music
  • Brick Talk, an interactive glossary to the film’s unique verbal style
  • Five short films: Ninja Ko, The Origami Master (1990), Evil Demon Goofball from Hell (1998), Escargots (2006), Johnson and Gordon-Levitt’s short film shot in Paris, The Psychology of Dream Analysis (2002), and Page 439 (2009), a visual adaptation of Page 439 of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake made with Gordon-Levitt and Ronen V.
  • Music video of The Mountain Goats’ “Woke Up New,” directed by Johnson
  • Galleries of production stills, posters and fan art
  • Original theatrical teasers and trailers
  • PLUS:  The original novella with illustrations by Naeim Khavari, the complete and annotated shooting script and an introduction by Johnson and a booklet featuring a new essay by reporter and columnist John Leland

The ‘net is full of plot summaries for Brick, so we won’t say more than what’s already provided above.  Instead, we’ll focus on what makes the film so special.

By all rights, the central conceit of Brick should have made it a dismal failure.  Telling the story of a teenager investigating the disappearance and murder of his ex-girlfriend while transposing the semantics and syntax of hard-boiled crime fiction into a suburban SoCal setting by all rights should have turned the film into a drama class production of Bugsy Malone (Alan Parker) minus the music, but it doesn’t.  Brick‘s success as a stylish, clever and sincere homage to the work of Dashiell Hammett is a testament to its creator’s talents, Rian Johnson, making the film as self-assured a feature début as they come.  Johnson’s brilliance comes in recognizing that teenage life is not unlike the hard-bitten worlds of Sam Spade and the Continental Op.  The liminal spaces that make up noir (hotels, diners, nightclubs, taxis, etc.) are comparable to the traipsing lives of teenagers.  High school kids are sufficiently independent to roam but lack the capacity to own and settle in places of their own, leaving them to acquiesce to their parents’ and teachers’ goodwill or to temporarily bide their time in parking lots, playgrounds or drainage tunnels.  By mapping the two worlds over top one another, Johnson is then able to easily find his ragged gumshoe, his crime boss, his thug, his showgirl and his femme fatale.  A lesson seems to be taken from another successful teen film, Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988), which invented its own teen jargon rather than risk dating itself or missing its mark by trying to emulate contemporary teen slang.  Brick employs the style of ’20s and ’30s crime fiction dialogue, managing to interpolate it into a contemporary youth vernacular (more or less).  This accomplished remix of a 75-year-old genre makes Brick an entirely unique viewing experience, a film unlike anything seen before or after, and therefore one that is entirely rewarding.

A Criterion release shouldn’t be that fanciful.  Brick is a Focus Features releases, putting it under the umbrella of Universal Pictures.  The Collection has an ongoing relationship with Universal that has resulted in recent Criterion titles like The Game (David Fincher, 1997) and Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, 1999).  Further, the initial DVD release of Brick is modest in its special features and the film’s more recent Blu-ray upgrade is nearly devoid of any extras.  With Johnson and Gordon-Levitt’s profiles currently high after the release of Looper (Rian Johnson, 2012), the Collection would do well to interrogate the film that made them artists to watch.

Zachary Johnson Brick Alternate PosterA major component of any Criterion release is its packaging and cover design, typically involving a newly commissioned piece by a contemporary artist and offering something of a new take on a familiar film.  Brick has no shortage of poster designs and promotional art to utilize or take inspiration from.  Johnson’s film was something a family affair with its score being composed by his cousin Nathan Johnson, so why not keep it so when looking for cover art.  Rian Johnson’s cousin Zachary Johnson painted this alternate poster for the film.  This variation on Brick‘s most frequently used theatrical poster design effectively refers to its iconic image, the murdered girl’s outstretched arm, in a new and novel form.

Credits:  The film’s commentary, its extended and deleted scenes and the audition tapes featurette appear as special features on Brick‘s original DVD release.  Building Brick was a special feature released only on the German edition, however it’s posted here by its camera operator and editor, Lauren Jean Schwartz.  Scoring Brick is based on Nathan Johnson’s presentation at the SOHO Apple Store, available hereBrick Talk was an actual glossary of terms handed out on its US release, originally titled Brick Talk: An Insider’s Glossary to the Unique Verbal Style of the Highly Acclaimed Detective Movie by Rian Johnson.  Many of Rian Johnson’s short films are available on YouTube or on his Vimeo page.  Johnson’s tumblr page is an interesting source of Brick ephemera, making the galleries feature an obvious choice.  The introduction, illustrated novella and annotated shooting script are all made available by Johnson here.  Finally, John Leland’s book on cool, Hip: The History, seems to make him an ideal candidate for a new essay on Brick.  Leland devotes an entire chapter to crime fiction, film noir and contemporary hip hop (“Would a Hipster Hit a Lady? Pulp Fiction, Film Noir and Gangsta Rap”), wherein he specifically deals with writers like Hammett and their legacy.  Leland’s hypothesizes that hip originates from the convivial interactions of cultures in America and the significant increases in leisure time occurring with modern industrialization, an approach that is consistent with Brick‘s genre-mixing and the roving existence of its young characters, suggesting that Leland could to offer an insightful view on the film.


3 thoughts on “Brick (Rian Johnson, 2005)

  1. Matt January 30, 2013 / 4:23 am

    Great post! Good point about the similarities between noir and teen culture. I like the thought of Hammett, Chandler and noir in general being the precursors of sorts to today’s text talk teen vernacular.

    I remember ‘Brick’ fondly but not well. Looks like it’s time for a revisit.

    • spinenumbered January 31, 2013 / 8:34 pm

      Thanks for the response. I must admit that I hadn’t seen Brick for some time, but I was very surprised at how well the film and its unusual concept held up. Let me know what your experience is when you return to Brick.

  2. The Vern July 1, 2013 / 10:33 pm

    I wanna own this Blue Ray. The special features look amazing. I agree the dialouge from the 20’sand 30’s work and help add to the style. Its been ages since I saw this but I may have to watch it again soon . Thank you

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