As hard and unforgiving as its title implies, "Brick" is a tough slice of film noir that's impeccably constructed, deliciously convoluted and one of the most original American films of thus far in 2006 – acclaimed at Sundance and having received a fleeting theatrical distribution, writer/director Rian Johnson's gritty "detective movie" will most likely develop a passionately loyal audience on DVD.
Clearly fueled by a love of Dashiell Hammett, Chinatown and traces of the Coen brothers' quirky classic Miller's Crossing, Brick takes Sam Spade and plops him down in your average American high school, turning the conventions and plot devices of film noir upon their ear. I'll tread lightly so as to avoid spoiling the serpentine pleasures of the plot for those yet to view the film: Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Brendan Frye, your prototypical loner, who prefers to brown bag it alone behind the school each day for lunch, perhaps pining for former girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). When Emily mysteriously disappears, only to resurface as a corpse, Brendan must force his way into the seedy underbelly of a surprisingly vicious high school drug ring, working with his sidekick The Brain (Matt O'Leary) and fending off attacks from Tugger (Noah Fleiss) and Dode (Noah Segan), both of whom are in the pocket of The Pin (Lukas Haas). – the deeper Brendan digs, the more shocking truths he uncovers.
As jarring as it is initially to see teens and early twentysomethings speaking in staccato bursts of verbiage, Brick doesn't waste time setting up its story, nor finding its rhythm; the entire cast is on the same wavelength, geared up for a crackling fusion of high school drama and gritty pulp fiction. Brick unfolds at a quicksilver pace, building to a satisfying, if bleak, conclusion. It's not a film that will capture everyone's imagination, but for those who give themselves over to its peculiar charms won't be able to stop raving about it.
Brick is presented in a very sharp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that handles the numerous lowly-lit scenes with no noticeable visual artifacts – the blacks are rich, the daylight scenes crisp and free of defect, while the overall image looks as clean as a recently released film should.
Outfitted with a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, Brick is appropriately loud when it needs to be, but I found myself cranking the volume up quite a bit during the extensive passages of dialogue, only to be blown out of my seat by a gunshot or some other sudden loud sound. It's curious why a recent film would have such variations in volume – those optional English subtitles come in handy, so as to avoid cracking the walls with the constant fluctuations in volume.
Having been a modest festival success and practically non-existent in theaters, it's understandable that Brick doesn't arrive on DVD with an overstuffed, two-disc set (despite a slightly heftier UK edition). What's included here is worthwhile and for fans of the film, a chance to more fully appreciate what Johnson has wrought. A kitchen sink commentary with Johnson, actors Noah Segan and Nora Zehetner, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen and costume designer Michele Posch is on board, which delves into each person's respective area of expertise on the film; it's a fun, if full, listen. Eight deleted and extended scenes, playable separately or all together for an aggregate of 22 minutes, features introductions by Johnson, who explains that more scenes were trimmed than deleted outright. The three minute, 13 second featurette "The Inside Track: Casting the Roles of Laura and Dode," offers a look at audition tapes for two actors.
Brick is a ferociously entertaining twist on film noir conventions – writer/director Rian Johnson imaginatively sets the grim world of Sam Spade amid the relative light and air of a California high school, turning the narrative on its ear and delivering one of the year's true sleepers. A great film with a slim, but worthy, selection of extras make this a must-see for fans of outside-the-box cinema. Highly recommended.