What defines film noir? The gestures and archetypes? Do the femmes fatales, creeping shadows, and hardboiled narration carry any true significance when divorced from the genre’s context—the postwar trauma and shifting social values that so fundamentally shaped it?
With Brick, director Rian Johnson makes the compelling argument that film noir is not merely a moment in American history, but rather an attitude that transcends the barriers of space and time. To prove it, he uproots the stock characters, murder mystery narrative, and distinct dialect from their customary urban environment—and plops them down in a contemporary high school setting. Protagonist Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), an outcast who rejects the rigid clique hierarchy, embodies the same overwhelming sense of disillusionment and loneliness as the genre’s numerous detectives and private investigators—he even captures the poetic rhythm of their speech patterns. Various classmates and administrators fill the roles of cops, robbers, masterminds, and dumb thugs, weaving a tangled web of misdirection and deception—a classic Red Harvest conflict.
But even as he dissects and disassembles all the familiar tropes and cliches, Johnson never forgets to craft a cohesive story. The result is a wholly unique cinematic experience—a clever deconstruction that respects its predecessors enough to take them seriously.