In the 3rd term of my 5th year at primary school, Rosa disappeared. One day she was at school then…gone. I interviewed the whole playground to check alibis. (I knew how to do this from watching Saturday matinées on BBC2.) The trail went cold quicker than a corpse in a fridge. Nobody had seen anything, there was no body, and I’m pretty sure that the apple core left on the drain was a message to leave well alone. After three weeks I applied the screws and one of the teachers sang like a canary. Turns out Rosa had moved to Israel with her father. Oh well, on to the next case: The Mystery of the Dirty Mattresses, dumped next to the climbing frame.
Later, as a self-obsessed, bored teen, I would ask myself: “Where are all the murders to solve? Why can’t my life be more like a Dashiell Hammett novel? Why can’t I find my own femme-fatale (and not fat-femmes)?” Which is why this unique and beautiful high-school detective tale holds such a special place in my heart.
Think of film-noir and you probably imagine strips of light filtered through a venetian blind splayed across a ramshackle office. Maybe an immaculately dressed woman standing in a shadowy alley on an illicit rendezvous. Such images are part of a cinematic movement which emphasised style and mood as much as story. It came as a reaction to The Depression in the 30s and 40s with films made on tight budgets, borrowing heavily from German Expressionism and presenting cynical characters from the rougher end of town.
Rian Johnson’s Brick isn’t just a classic film noir transposed to a high-school setting. And it isn’t a parody of a detective yarn either. The story is too compelling in its own right to be written off that way. It gives an effective demonstration of how noir elements can be picked up, placed in an entirely different setting and still function. The dialogue in the film is a good example. Characters use their own form of slang and talk with the breakneck speed and economy of the very best detective stories. I guarantee that one view of this film won’t be enough to take in everything that is said.
Our hero Brendan (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is like the battered hero of Hammett’s book The Maltese Falcon, stumbling through the case and chancing on leads more through luck and determination than skill. Brendan’s girlfriend has turned up dead and the leads point to a crime boss known as The Pin (Lukas Haas) and his hired muscle, Tug. When Brendan gets too deep he is punished for it with violence. No noir hero ever had it easy.
With an obsessive zeal Brendan pursues the case, driving himself close to death. His one ally comes in the unlikely form of his bookish friend, The Brain. In Brick’s world adults are barely visible. The Vice Principal acts as embittered police chief to Brendan’s put-upon private eye while The Pin’s mother serves as jarring comic relief, pouring our young adversaries some country-style apple juice with a cheery smile.
Alan Parker’s Bugsy Malone bears superficial comparison to Brick, both featuring young hoodlums and a world (largely) free from adult interference. The difference is that Bugsy exists only as parody; Brick has a reverential relationship with its source. Closer in spirit to Brick are films like Bladerunner and Chinatown, both of which took the feel of noir, added colour, moved the pieces around and then revelled in the atmosphere, perversion and violence of those classic detective tales. Brick also finds a cultural sibling in the form of the US TV series Veronica Mars about a seemingly unstoppable high-school super-sleuth.
This is a film about an underworld of 30s-style crime, long shadows, moodiness and danger re-purposed in a sterile Californian town. It is exciting, funny, tense and well-paced. It ranks with some of the very best modern detective stories and, with its youthful cast, is such a novel take on some well-trodden ground that I can’t help but recommend it highly.
Back at my own school, I traced the abandoned mattresses over the fence and through the woods. I was chased and nearly caught by some skinheads. Maybe it’s just as well my detective career ended there.
Steve Thompson is a writer, cartoonist and film critic. He’s not a detective. Follow him on Twitter.