A 2005 ‘noir’ cult classic at Woodmere


Rian Johnson's “Brick,” an early gem in his filmography, carved out a distinctive niche in the noir landscape by transplanting the gritty world of hardboiled detective fiction into the corridors of a high school. 

Despite its humble beginnings with a shoestring budget of under $500,000, “Brick” managed to defy expectations. When the film finally found its audience in limited theatrical release it grossed nearly $4,000,000 and snagged eleven awards, including the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Today, it stands as a cult classic in the noir genre.

Rian Johnson came into popular consciousness with his 2019 smash hit, “Knives Out,” a fun and clever mystery with a twist that won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay. While “Knives Out” is a clear child of the great Agatha Christie, in “Brick” we see Johnson’s early and abiding obsession with Dashiell Hammett’s detective novels, like “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Thin Man.” 

Hammett is not the only DNA coursing through Brick’s celluloid. Johnson’s influences have global reach, from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns like “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” as well as “Shinichiro Watanabe’s Cowboy Bebop.” Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” also set in sun-drenched California, is another clear influence. 

Johnson’s visionary spin on the hardboiled genre was to set Brick in a high school. "It was really amazing how all the archetypes from that detective world slid perfectly over the high school types,” Johnson explained. Brick was even filmed at the high school Johnson attended, in his hometown of San Clemente, California.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the ersatz private eye role trying to solve the death of an ex-girlfriend, while Lukas Haas is the gang leader known as “the pin.” The “Brick” is a stolen block of heroin that leads our protagonist to the inevitable noir ending. The dialogue, intrigue, and direction are played completely straight. It’s a classic noir unfolding in the lives of California high school students.

The brilliance of Brick is twofold. It not only proves the endless adaptability and universality of film noir and its world of long shadows, winding plots, and complex morality; it also captures something essential about the teenage experience. Recall your high school years and maybe you’ll remember a world that felt separate from that of the adults around you, teeming with its own morality, dramas, and stakes just below the surface. 

That’s a world Dashiell Hammett would recognize, and it’s one Rian Johnson sees pretty clearly too.  

Chestnut Hill Film Group presents Tuesday Nights at the Movies at Woodmere. Sponsored by the Chestnut Hill Local. Admission Free 7PM to 9PM. Doors open 6:30.