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 Brickwhen 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 dressup 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 sneakers.
"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 that these are high schoolers acting like adults."
Ironic, because Brick is not only one of the year's best movies, but also 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, 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, a homage to Hammett novels such as Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon. He likes to say the decision to set his murder mystery filled with archetypal loony 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 has been dubbed well. "John Hughes's movies were the touchstone of my adolescence," he says. Plus, where else but high school is every little experience given larger-than-life significance?
"Look at a movie like Heathers," Johnson says of Michael Lehmann and Daniel Waters's 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 öIf this friendship falls apart, my life does too.' In high school, the stakes aren't as öserious' as they are in the adult word, 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."