This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
In 2005, Sundance gave out an award called the “Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision” which they seem to have only given out in 2005. Every festival and award show has their own way of doing things, but I think that’s odd. The two films, however, make perfect sense for 2005. If you had to explain that time period to someone, I don’t think you could do better than with Rian Johnson’s Brick and Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know. Miranda July’s film is undeniably stranger, but it represents the high-water mark of weird films about normal life and how no one’s experience really is that normal. There are dozens of films like it and most of them don’t manage to toe the line between weird and specific nearly as well.
Rian Johnson’s career has had an interesting trajectory since Brick. He’s directed key episodes of Breaking Bad, made a film for indie legends the Mountain Goats, directed a Star Wars movie, and made one of the best movies of the last five years in Knives Out. You might have predicted Miranda July’s career in 2005, but that list for Rian Johnson is pretty bizarre. It’s not that he didn’t seem talented, it just seems like a surprising combination of things for anyone. You also might not have had a lot of hope for film as a whole in 2005, with the Oscars voting that Crash was the best film of the year. I’ve written pretty extensively about this before but I really just cannot say enough about how much I hate Crash. I mention it here to bring you back to the time period, along with Brokeback Mountain, Syriana, Walk the Line, and Hustle & Flow.
Brick is a 1930s crime story told in the 2000s. The style is identical and the language, which is the key to the entire genre, is intact. Every character says things like “keep your specs on” and quips fly constantly. You need to buy into this for Brick to work at all, but that’s not difficult to do. Joseph Gordon-Levitt wasn’t yet at the height of his powers in 2005, but he carries this as the Bogart figure at the center who is just trying to figure out what happened. There’s a dead body and a brick of heroin and a seedy underworld to wade through, but mostly it’s the story of the steady downfall of a detective. The good ones always are.
Roger Ebert gave it three stars and said it was great but all style and hard to engage with because the characters aren’t believable. He’s absolutely right, but it doesn’t matter as much to me. I saw Brick when it came out and loved it, but the details fell out of my head. I watched it again a few weeks ago for this review and had the same experience, so I watched it a third time. The murder and the drugs just don’t matter and that might be a problem for you. It matters that something holds the whole thing together, but just what it is feels less important. Good noir is all style, anyway, and Brick clears that bar with a ton of room to spare. Just who killed who and what it means for their future is a mystery, which this is, but it’s really not where your eye should focus.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, a high school student who gets pulled into what initially seems like a confusing plot but clears up into a pretty simple problem. Someone was murdered and it has a connection to him that threatens to bring him down. Further, it seems like everyone he runs into is connected and their exact involvement isn’t always what it seems. Like the detectives of old, Brendan has just enough information to be dangerous and he refuses to walk away when he’s given the chance. He has to get a little dirty to figure it out, but that’s a risk he knew he’d have to take.
The language is the point. When Brendan starts trying to find information he asks a woman if she is “still picking your teeth with freshman” and she offers that “if you’re ever looking to get back into things, I could use you.” It’s not exactly the slang of the 30s, but it’s highly stylized and often obscures what’s happening. You won’t follow every exchange, but you aren’t intended to. Just like the plot, the point is not that every scene shows you another beat until you see the murder and find the killer. These are clues that are sometimes helpful and sometimes not.
Brendan’s source of info is a guy in glasses who seems to know everything and says things like “ask any dope rat where the junk sprang and they’ll say they scraped it off that who scored it off this who bought it off someone and after four or five connections the list always ends with The Pin.” If this wasn’t all done perfectly it would be disorienting or annoying, but it flows like a language that you don’t fully speak but you can understand. The Pin is a drug dealer and through extended discussion and hinting, Brendan realizes he needs to get into that scene to find out what happened. He does, it goes poorly, and you can guess the rest.
The reason you should watch Brick is that you have to experience it. I don’t care about the murder and I largely don’t care about the ending. I think Ebert is right, as he usually is, and the film sputters out and doesn’t necessarily pay off, but the experience of getting there is really incredible. Richard Roundtree, Shaft himself, plays the vice principal who confronts Brendan when the situation gets hot. They have a conversation that both confronts the ridiculousness of the situation (when Brendan says he should “write him up” if he has a problem and directly asks the VP to not “kick in my homeroom door”) but also the seriousness of it (when the VP says there needs to be a fall guy to give to the police). Brick doesn’t hide from the conceit that this is a murder story with high school kids in it, but it never winks at the camera. It’s in moments like these that you remember how absurd this should be, but how it isn’t.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? Both The Lady from Shanghai and Brick are murder stories where the murder is less important than the style of how you hear about it. Brick has the much harder task of setting a noir in a modern world and ultimately is a little easier to follow. They’re both worth your time for the same reason, but I think the older one is the better film. Rian Johnson came back to the “confusing murder story” genre with a more conventional take in Knives Out and that is a much better experience, but you probably already knew that. If you haven’t seen that one, whew, you simply must.
Is it the best movie of all time? No, Persona retains this title again this week, but comparing the two does raise the question of what you want out of a movie. Brick is a better choice for a Tuesday after dinner. If you just want two hours of an experience you aren’t likely to have elsewhere, this is near the top of the list. It’s not going to revolutionize how you think about film, which is hardly a criticism, and I think that’s okay for a modern noir. I watched it three times, though, so make of that what you will.
You can watch Brick on YouTube ($3.99 at the time of this writing) or Amazon Prime ($3.99 at the time of this writing). You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.