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Emily Kostich is doomed. We know this, because we find her body at the opening of Brick (2005) precisely where her ex-boyfriend Brendan Frye finds her — face-down in a drainage ditch. And Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) isn't the sort of guy who leaves things alone. After a brief absence from his southern California high school, he returned to find that Emily (Emilie de Ravin) had fallen in with the wrong crowd. Brendan's associate "The Brain" (Matt O'Leary) indicated that she had clung to the school's upper-crust but eventually wound up with a series of sketchy losers, including leather-jacketed ne'er-do-well Dode (Noah Segan). However, after getting a panicked, rambling phone call from Emily, and then following a small clue that leads to the scene of her murder, Brendan realizes that she was in way over her head, upset about words that don't make sense. Frisco… Pin… Tug… Brick. Brendan immediately lets Brain know that he's determined to get to the bottom of things, starting first with the school's "drama vamp" Kara (Meagan Good), who's been seen with Dode. Brain thinks "Frisco" may be a former student who hasn't been seen for some time. And "Pin" appears the be the town's "local spook story," an elusive, well-connected drug lord. Brendan first reaches out to one of Emily's upper-crust associates, Laura (Nora Zehetner), and he makes his presence known on the street by getting into a scrape with dealer Brad Bramish (Brian J. White). His actions draw the expected heat, from two directions — the school's assistant vice-principal, Mr. Trueman (Richard Roundtree), wants to know what Brendan's after, while Tugger (Noah Fleiss) brings him in for a meeting with The Pin (Lukas Haas).

Taking on the rarefied world of detective fiction, and specifically the writings of Dashiell Hammett, writer-director Rian Johnson's Brick is a bold exercise in the surreal. The opening scenes establish the film's unusual tone — after all, teenagers don't talk like they're in old movies, concerned about the shake, their street, the yeggs and the bulls, and what it's going to take to smooth it all out. In fact, nobody talks like this. However, Johnson's insistence on remaining true to his material ensures that his actors don't wink at the camera, and that the movie doesn't devolve into sketch comedy. Brick is a proto-noir murder mystery set in a class-stratified high school, with each player representing a genre element: the loner detective, the doomed girl, the deep source, the cop, the moll, the muscle, and the gangster. In fact, the only thing missing is the school itself — the story never sets foot inside a classroom or crowded hallway, favoring meetings and encounters in parking lots and on athletic fields. Had Johnson been willing to play Brick for laughs, it's likely that the film could have been made sooner. However, his 1997 script never connected with the right backing, leading to an independent production that cost just $500,000. The lack of studio minders and surplus of young talent is what keeps the film a singular vision — like the majority of detective fiction, it's fundamentally a Campbellian hero's quest as one man plumbs a dark, unseen netherworld hoping to access "the truth," but also to cleanse himself of his own shadowy guilt. It's not quite film noir — Brendan is no chump, and he can hand out a beating as well as he can take one — but instead a blend of Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane, exploring a world where, as in L.A. Confidential, things simply are not as they seem. Those unfamiliar with the genre may have trouble with Brick — the relentless street patter can challenge suspension of disbelief, and because of this the picture risks becoming the sort that's cherished by film buffs everywhere but dismissed by general filmgoers. After all, even John Hughes movies offer more actual realism. But the literate script and solid performances (in particular from former child actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Lukas Haas) make Brick a film like no other — as long as we're not counting The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Kiss Me Deadly. It's in good company.

*          *          *

Universal's DVD release of Brick features an excellent anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Writer-director Rian Johnson offers a commentary track, where he's joined by "guests," including co-stars Noah Segan and Nora Zehentner, as well as crew members. Also included are eight deleted scenes with introductions, and audition tapes in "The Inside Track: Casting the Roles of Laura and Dode" (3 min.). Keep-case.

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