Magazine article The Spectator

Watching the Detective

Magazine article The Spectator

Watching the Detective

Article excerpt

Brick 15, selected cinemas

I have read all Raymond Chandler's books, some of them several times, but if you asked me for a synopsis of any of them I think I'd be stumped. I can remember scenes (the stifling orchid house, the blanketed old man in the wheelchair) and dialogue ('She'd make a jazzy weekend, but she'd be wearing for a steady diet') but not the plot. This film has had rather the same effect: I watched the credits roll four hours ago, and already its plot is blurring at the edges.

It's not surprising: Brick is a detective story, a film noir, an homage to films like The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, Chinatown and The Long Goodbye. A baffling plot and an incomprehensible lingo are therefore de rigueur, as is the clutch of archetypes: a washed-up corpse, a loner who plays detective, a mysterious beauty behind the wheel of a convertible, and a hired thug wearing a wifebeater's vest. But where you'd expect to find a tired chief of police, meet the vice-principal. This film noir is set in a high school: instead of trenchcoats and fedoras we get jeans and a Rubik Cube.

Geeky-but-cool Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds his ex-girlfriend's body on a concrete riverbed. She had telephoned him, afraid for her life, two days earlier. He had tried to save her but couldn't.

Brendan embarks on a quest -- which borders on the pathological -- to find out what happened. He dives into the drugaddled underbelly of his home town and is soon taking punches from every side. Each confrontation brings him another bruise, and an inch closer to the truth.

So if we're in a sun-soaked Californian high school, how do we know it's a film noir? Well, everyone (but for our detecting hero) smokes. Characters go by nicknames -- 'The Pin', 'Tugger', 'The Brain'. Clubfooted drug-dealer The Pin (a brilliant Lukas Haas) dresses in black and walks with a cane, while his muscle wears white.

Telephone calls are made and received in phone booths under street lamps. Folded pieces of paper, bearing mysterious pencilled messages, slip out of notebooks.

Brendan throws a number of punches, and is punched in return -- like Bogart he barely flinches. And the characters speak the language of the detective novel (cinema tickets will come with a glossary, apparently).

I do like the fact that, at a moment when film-makers seem generally to be aiming for documentary-style realism, Rian Johnson (who makes his writing/directing debut with Brick) has made a film which is anything but. …

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