It's the sort of thing envisioned among whiskey-fueled dreamers at 3 a.m. but never actually attempted once the think tank sobers up: make a movie that takes the hardboiled slang perfected by wordsmiths like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler during the first half of the 20th century and crams it into the maws of modern-day suburban teenagers. Do it wrong and it's completely awkward; kids playing grown-up and struggling with language that may as well be foreign (remember Bugsy Malone?). Do it right --- really, really right --- and it's called Brick.
The film opens with a jarring shot of Brandon (played by the gifted Joseph Gordon-Levitt, last seen in the Gregg Araki flick Mysterious Skin) in a drainage ditch, crouching near the prone body of an unfortunate blonde. Two days previous, Emily (Emilie de Ravin, Lost) had reached out to Brandon, her smitten ex-boyfriend, with cryptic messages alluding to serious trouble. The remainder of Brick concerns itself with Brandon's brokenhearted quest to find out how Emily got so dead.
The trail leads to the Pin (a serenely menacing Lukas Haas, still contending with that sugar-bowl head), a local drug honcho who runs his empire out of his cheery mom's paneled basement, and the anti-social Brandon knocks on the right doors and knocks in the right teeth to make the Pin's acquaintance. He's aided by fellow high schoolers The Brain (Matt O'Leary, Frailty), sporting thick glasses and clutching a Rubik's Cube, and possibly by the well-connected Laura (NoraZehetner, Everwood), a classic noir vamp with dubious motives and a yen for our hero ("Do you trust me?" she asks Brandon. "Less now than when I didn't trust you before," he replies.)
And that pure pulp patois is what distinguishes Brick from a run-of-the-mill whodunit or smug teen flick. The cadence takes a second to adjust to, its breakneck delivery allowing little time for comprehension, and then it's just so delicious. Looking for the exit becomes "Which wall is the door in?" A deal can't be brokered until a henchman leaves: "The ape blows or I clam." Truthfully, you'll probably need to watch Brick again to fully grasp the dialogue. Luckily, you'll probably want to.
Shot in three weeks in a surprisingly gray California and edited on a home computer, Brick is the filmmaking debut of Rian Johnson, who reportedly went on a Hammett bender, pestered his loved ones into ponying up half a mil, and then proceeded to wow the Sundance cynics with a calling card that should leave other aspiring auteurs drooling with envy over its resourcefulness and audacity. The ending is actually a bit of a letdown after such a crackerjack ride, but good film noir has always been more about the journey than the destination --- if you'll recall, Chandler's The Big Sleep makes very little sense --- and Brick is an absolute trip.
Creativity and mental illness seem to go hand in hand. Perhaps that kink in the chemistry is what allows the great artists to plumb depths and heights that the balanced are unable to access. Names like Hemingway, Woolf, van Gogh, and Cobain spring to mind, as well as the man Cobain once called "the greatest living songwriter," Daniel Johnston. Unlike the aforementioned, however, Johnston still breathes, and his struggle to create while coping with bipolar disorder is the focus of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, an alternately tragic and inspiring documentary by director Jeff Feuerzeig.
Hailing from a fundamentalist Christian home in West Virginia, Johnston decided early on that he was going to be famous and began obsessively documenting his life via Super 8 footage, drawings, and cassettes memorializing both his thoughts and deceptively simple pop warblings. Feuerzeig puts this trove to effective use, as we accompany Johnston on his voyage from popular Austinscenester to MTV darling to delusional danger to respected cult musician.
Devil also includes interviews with Johnston's friends and family, most notably his elderly parents, who recount the harrowing time their son, having gone off medication to play a show, downed the plane they were on, as well as his former manager, a patient and loyal man who helped get Daniel signed to a major label despite the fact that his client was in a mental institution. Now gray-haired, potbellied, and medicated, Johnston doesn't spend much time in the interview chair himself, both he and Feuerzeig preferring to let the astonishing amount of art Johnston produced --- and continues to produce --- do the talking.
Brick (R), directed by Rian Johnson, is playing at the Little Theatres | The Devil and Daniel Johnston (PG-13), directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, opens Friday, June 23, at the Little Theatres