Rian Johnson Delights and Disappoints

BrickI’m am fond of the film The Brothers Bloom. It is a mess of a plot with a totally inappropriate ending.[1] But there is so much to like in the film that it triumphs nonetheless. But even more than that, it is a film that has made me want to check out other things that writer-director Rian Johnson has done. And last night, I did just that by watching his first feature film, Brick.

I try to stay away from being a film ombudsman. My opinions about film are not representative of what other people think. What’s more, my opinion about a film can change dramatically over the course of a short time. But above all, I don’t think it helps anyone to say that a film is good or bad. I could easily write bad reviews for my very favorite films—and vise versa. And the problem is greatly increased when dealing with a work that is trying to do something different.

Brick is such a film. Johnson put Dashiell Hammett into a high school. It is idiosyncratic to say the least. This is especially true because the film is more an homage to the books than it is to the film noir of the 1940s and 1950s. There is no softening of edges here. As a result, the film is very smart and often hilarious. The problem with it for me is that I never got past the conceit of it.

This is especially true of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who has to speak some of the most silly dialog ever:

No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one. But they’d trample the real tracks and scare the real players back into their holes, and if we’re doing this I want the whole story.

It is all played totally straight. If anything, the performances are too extreme. But Johnson never lets the viewer forget the absurdity of the film. At one point, Gordon-Levitt’s character is badly beaten and nearly killed by the drug kingpin’s henchman. After everything is worked out, the kingpin, who still lives at home, has his mother give cereal and juice to Gordon-Levitt. Before leaving, the mother kisses the kingpin on the cheek and he says, “Thanks, mom.” High concept stuff.

And I think it all works. It is certainly what Johnson was trying to do. And he shows a surprisingly firm hand for a rooking feature film director. But it is entirely an intellectual experience. There is absolutely not a single character in the film that the viewer can care about, because in a very real way, there are no characters in the film. There are just archetypes from the genre. So the ending is just an intellectual exercise of wrapping up a plot that I didn’t care about involving characters I didn’t believe in.

Still, I watched the whole film because it was engaging. In addition to it being a loving and twisted love letter to a genre I like, it was visually interesting—far more so than the noir films themselves. Johnson clearly worked very hard on this, because he has very little to work with in terms of production design. The cinematography by Steve Yedlin was very good, and surprisingly consistent for such a cheap film. But more than this, I thought the framing of shots was particularly good. I don’t know who was responsible for that—probably Yedlin and Johnson together. And the editing helped a lot, although the jump cutting sometimes annoyed me.

In the end, Brick is something like “the best student film ever made!” And that’s a good and bad thing. Having now seen Rian Johnson’s first two feature films, I don’t think I’m any closer to understanding his work. To some extent, I think people have given him a lot of money to play in his sandbox without much thought for who might be interesting in what he produced. That’s certainly the case with Brick. The savage editing required for The Brothers Bloom is another. But there is no doubt that Johnson’s creative flashes are superior to the vast majority of Hollywood directors. I’ll have to check out his newest film Looper.

Afterword

This has nothing to do with the film, but I can’t get it out of my head. “The clothes she wears, the sexy ways, make an old man wish for younger days…”


[1] The problem is not that Stephen dies. The problem is that the rest of the film doesn’t prepare for it, either in terms of plot or theme. There is a bit of foreshadowing, but that is about it. The ending also doesn’t make practical sense.

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