Dashiell Hammett goes to high school—the perfect studio pitch. Yet after wowing 'em at the film fests, Rian Johnson's knockout debut as writer and director, Brick, languished in theaters and on DVD. It took a bunk, as Hammett mighta said, and wound up wearing a wooden kimono.
Johnson, who wrote Brick when he was 20 and shot it after he'd passed 30, kind of expected that. He knew there were plenty of people who didn't dig his movie—who said it was too arch, nothing but a smarty-pants put-on starring kiddies playing shamus-and-dames dress-up while spitting black-and-white dialogue out of their Technicolor yaps. He knew the risks of flashing SoCal sunshine on pitch-black noir. And he knew it wasn't going to be easy convincing an audience that Joseph Gordon-Levitt was Humphrey Bogart—a gumshoe in tennis shoes.
"Definitely people tend to go one way or the other with Brick," Johnson says now. "One of the things people are turned off by is the fact these are high schoolers acting like adults."
Robert Wilonsky's Top 10
Brick (Rian Johnson, U.S.A.)
The Queen (Stephen Frears, U.K.)
United 93 (Paul Greengrass, U.K./U.S.A.)
Cavite (Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon, U.S.A.)
Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, U.S.A.)
The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, U.S.A.)
The Heart of the Game (Ward Serrill, U.S.A.)
Casino Royale (Martin Campbell, U.K./U.S.A.)
Venus (Roger Michell, U.K.)
Sleeping Dogs Lie (Bobcat Goldthwait, U.S.A.)
Ironic, because not only is Brick one of the year's best movies, it is among the greatest high school movies ever made, deserving of its place in the trophy case alongside the likes of Dazed and Confused, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Sixteen Candles and even Rebel Without a Cause. Yeah, yeah—Johnson's got a gimmick. But barely concealed beneath the ironic quotation marks is your high school experience, complete with jocks, mathletes, stoners and loners, but this time starring Bogie and Bacall instead of lousy ol' you.
The story goes that Johnson wrote the film without any intention of setting it in a high school; it was straight-up noir, an homage to such Hammett novels as Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. He likes to say the decision to set his murder mystery, filled with archetypal goons, good-girls-in-dutch and scrawny bespectacled sidekicks, in a high school was random, almost an accident. But soon he would find that setting a film noir inside the hallways and lunchrooms and smoking porches of a high school—his high school in San Clemente, as a matter of fact—made perfect sense. Johnson knew the high school genre—the "clique flick," as it's been dubbed—well. "John Hughes' movies were the touchstone of my adolescence," he says. Plus, where else but high school is every little experience given larger-than-life significance?
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"Look at a movie like Heathers," says Johnson of Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters' 1989 film. "When I watched it when I was younger, even though there was all this ridiculous violence and the stakes were life or death, it made sense to me. It captured the way high school feels: that intensity and that insane level of 'if this friendship falls apart, my life does too.' In high school, the stakes aren't as 'serious' as they are in the adult world, but when you are a teenager and in that subjective reality you don't think of yourself as a kid or a high schooler. You're just a person in this world trying to survive in it."