Brick: Teenage Psychology

I was just fourteen years old when I first saw Rian Johnson’s Brick, an indie film that promised to be a marriage of the new-age teen flick and the much older film noir. His tale of small-town life with a thriving criminal underground was so very relatable to me at a time when I found myself moving into a village of 600 people; a village which showed itself to be clean and untainted on the surface but featured a very lively and very detestable circuit of drugs underneath that country wholesomeness. I appreciated the film for its show of gumption, holding nothing back as it tackled very adult themes in a film with such a young cast of characters. It treated its story with the same level of seriousness that I felt I myself wanted to be treated with.

While it certainly aims to be a modern interpretation of the classic genre of gumshoes and femme fatales, lacking the slick suits and making use of more colors than the films of Humphrey Bogart, it nonetheless manages to hold onto those key elements that make film noir such a delightful genre in the first place. Its characters neatly fit into the classic archetypes seen in films prior, with teenage loner Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as the film’s protagonist and gumshoe, Laura Dannon (Nora Zehetner) acting as the story’s femme fatale, Tugger “Tug” (Noah Fleiss) standing as the antagonist’s hired muscle, and Lukas Haas playing “The Pin.” And while these traditional character archetypes seem to so neatly fit with the typical labels used by teenagers to describe one another, an interesting comparison is also made as high school cliques are inevitably treated as is they were gangs each vying for control of the playing field.

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There are a number technical elements which serve as callbacks to the film’s ancestral roots. The film’s score is comprised entirely of traditional instruments to mimic the style and texture of classic Hollywood films. The action is kept to a pleasant minimum, allowing for dialogue and character motivation to serve as the primary driving points for the film’s scenes of intrigue. Light and darkness are both used to great effect in amplifying the drama of the tale, such as in one scene in which Brendan finds himself locked in a dark basement while the Pin, engulfed in shadows, speaks to him.

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There are also modern elements at work here that seem to perfectly compliment those original ones. At many times, camera movements may be used where others would have used edits to add to the tension of a scene; this is a technique that came about during the French New Wave era of cinema, but it’s mingled with more traditional editing where it sees fit. A perfect example of this would be the film’s chase scene (see here), in which camera movements and quick edits are used in combination with one another to add to the tension of the scene. What really gets me though, and what leads me to believe that this might just be the best chase scene I’ve ever witnessed, is the lack of music and a focus on the sounds of shoes. Brendan’s quick pace makes us electrified and tense, while the slow, steady pace of his assailant works in the same was those famous first notes of the Jaws theme work to build suspense. All of this is then perfectly finalized by the single ringing sound at the end of the scene as the assailant’s head clashes against the metal pole, signifying the end. It’s amazing.

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There’s also an interesting technique at work in this film that I really admire, and that’s the use of fades and smash cuts. At times where Johnson needs to establish a change in time and setting, he may use simple fades to bring us from one scene into another. However, he isn’t afraid to make use of smash cuts either. For those unfamiliar with the term, a smash cut is a sudden cut from one scene to the next in which there is no indication that the prior scene is finished. Quite simply, smash cuts are the sucker punch of editing. Johnson uses these cuts to shake the audience around and add to the drama of the story. No better example exists in the film, I think, than in the film’s very first sixty seconds. The film opens with Brendan sitting at the opening of a tunnel looking at the dead body of his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), whose death will serve as the driving point for Brendan’s investigation for the rest of the film. Yet before he can set out to uncover who killed her and why, the film forces us to acknowledge that there is more to the story than just this moment and what follows. We must acknowledge what came before. For this, Johnson uses a smash cut that I find to be incredibly powerful.

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The thing that really gets to the heart of the tale though, and the thing that everyone immediately notices, is the dialogue. These characters, despite most of them being teenagers, don’t speak like teenagers. In fact, they don’t speak anything like modern day people at all. Instead, their language is akin to the noir tales of the 1930’s. The first four lines of the film perfectly exemplify this.

EMILY (OVER THE PHONE): Brendan?
BRENDAN: Emily?
EMILY (OVER THE PHONE): Yeah. How’s things?
BRENDAN: Status quo.

The true genius of this use of older language isn’t just a callback to the film’s noir origins, but is also an interesting look into the mindset of teenagers. When you were a teenager, you probably thought you had everything figured out. You saw the world how you thought adults saw the world, and you treated yourself as seriously as you expected adults to treat you. That’s how the characters of Brick talk; they talk with a level of seriousness beyond their years, not because they’re wise beyond their years, but because they think they are. The language is from the perspective of the characters.

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Looking back on those days, I can certainly see why I loved the movie so much, yet I must confess that upon watching the film again in the last week — that being the first time I had watched the film since I was fourteen — I found myself loving it even more. I’m older, certainly wiser, and given my increased knowledge of fiction and film making, I can appreciate a number of aspects regarding the film that I never could have considered when I was younger.


All images are taken from Brick and are the property of Bergman Lustig Productions. They are used for non-profit purposes in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine.

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