A Night at the Cinema: ‘Brick’

Four hours. From the time I left my residence to the time I returned, four hours passed by. In that four hours, a rainy spring day turned into an icy winter wonderland. We survived two projector unspoolings, resulting in a good hour and a half of no film. A refund was offered, but myself and a fair few others didn’t mind waiting and stuck it out. This wonderful experience was the conditions in which I saw ‘Brick’ at the Al Whittle Theatre on Friday evening.

I was asked to attend as part of my Politics of Mass Media class, but I had been intrigued by the film before that point. I knew that it was an attempt at recapturing the film noir stylings of the mid-20th century, and I knew from my brother’s experience with the film that it was a lesson in style over substance. And in the end, both of these things are what make Brick a film to watch and experience, and also ones that make it very interesting to engage at a level of mass media analysis.

Because really, as much as there exists power relationships and human nature, this is purely visual filmmaking. The plot is straight-forward and blunt: characters enter and exit without anything even close to a story, and even when the plot is summed up in about a minute at the end of the film it contains no deep answers, only surface ones. We get a sense of a narrative loosely running through the film, but this is not a film about its substance. Where we might in a mob film get an indepth view of The Pin’s thugs we get to see only one in any great detail. We hear about drug deals, about gangs, about family trees of hatred, and yet we see almost none of it. No one ever seems to be entirely in control, and no one is without their vulnerabilities.

There are a few things I want to focus on in terms of the film’s style that make it resonate with the viewer in a way that is quite profound and interesting. I want to look at the film’s depiction of violence, its use of lighting, as well as its reliance on its film noir construct. It is through these means that it manipulates the viewer, and eventually gets its message (whatever it is) across. And, they are what make the film compelling.

I want to talk about violence in the film because it’s never nameless, and it escalates gradually as the film progresses. The violence that we see within the film is happening to real people who have names, not random thugs. Even Brendan’s knife-wielding attacker is given a name, a driver’s license. The man who entered into a coma from the brick gets a name. Brad, who was the recipient of a fiendish set of shin kicks, had a name. Any violence we saw within the film was between those characters that we knew, that we would relate with. These were no random acts of violence, but rather acts which meant something to those who took part.

And really, this somewhat removes it from more big picture ideals that one may expect from a film dealing with drug and gang culture within a high school setting. There is no ability to speak about democracy because other than these individuals the rest of the world remains nameless. This is an isolated world, cut off from everything else, existing purely to tell this story. As a result, while this may in fact speak to its inability to engage at a broad level, I think it improves the sense of power relationships within the film. These are real people, with real problems, who forge real bonds of friendship and vengeance with those around them. As someone mentioned in the initial discussion they are all archetypes, and yet they are attributed names in a world with very few. And they are the ones who are violent, who are reactionary, who are out to prove their power. We are not even shown the violence that takes place to others. The Police remain out of sight, their justice faceless and not worth seeing. Perhaps their power isn’t legitimate in this environment, in this culture.

But, let’s talk about the escalation of that violence as the film goes forward. When it begins, despite being with a death, we don’t see that violence. We then begin to see fistfights, and the general fighting that one might see in a high school. However, then there is a knife attack. It changes a balance of power, throws things off, and Brendan is forced to adapt. And then, changing everything, Tug pulls a gun. It’s the first gun we’d seen throughout the entire film, and with it Tug became powerful. Violence took over, and the man with the gun was king. However, like every good escalating narrative, in this case one of power, there is always a denouement.

Here, that denouement was a shift in power. Suddenly, we realize that Dose was under the thumb of the theatre performer. Suddenly, Brendan is forced to think his way out of situation instead of punching out of it. And, most importantly, we discover that the true villain of the tale, the person calling the shots and setting things into motion, never lifted a finger. So really, for all of that violence, power in the end lied on the side of the cunning, the manipulative. And really, I think that’s what the film is trying to get across.

In what was a wonderfully lit and shot film, it was all the time lying to you. The images we saw didn’t reveal the true nature of the film’s plot, much as the violence didn’t display the true power. It’s a parallel I find interesting, because it works much worse from a filmmaking perspective. The plot is thin, and at times rather dull. There is little substance behind that style, which is why I but the world’s morals perhaps more than I do the filmmaker’s, if that makes any sense.

The lighting in the film is astonishing. The sets are almost empty and static, with a feeling of absolute isolation from the outside world. The entire mirror scene, with the discovery of the Brick itself, is just an amazing piece of work. The fact that this film came from a first-time director boggles my mind, and which is why I must commend him for it. I want to see what he does with material with more depth, substance. Here, it serves to hide the plot’s faults, and eventually creates a compelling film, but style cannot mask everything.

However, perhaps the most effective and therefore relevant use of style is the nostalgic turn to the film noirs of the mid-20th century. Whether it was the lightning fast dialogue exchanges, the use of informants each in their own unique locale, the set dressings or event the props, the film oozed with the seemingly out of place items that connect it to its source material. Brick is an homage to those ideals, set in a high school world of modern conflict. The character development of the mysterious hero, the loyal informant, the malevolent mobster, the hired stiff who’s out of control, it all reflects those principles. And really, plotwise, it follows them quite closely.

But it was the design that was most interesting. The entirety of the Pin’s house, decked out in old décor (The Chicken Pitcher was the greatest thing in the entire film); the old touchtone phone in Brendan’s room, and the use of pay phones a majority of the time; the fact that all of the “mobsters” drove old cars, while surrounded by shiny new SUVs; all of this creates the effect of drawing us into the film’s environment. It gives the film its distinctive look, perhaps its greatest feature, but I believe it gives us something more.

Brick is a compelling narrative; it is a world within our world that could well exist, but has been given traits that separate it quite clearly from our own. It is not about politics on a broad scale, but rather personal relations on a small one. It tells us something about how we relate to others, how we use violence or our minds to hold power over them, and how the filmmakers are very much trying to hold power over our own views at the same time. The film is manipulative, tricking us with light and shadow, waiting around every turn with a new empty set waiting to be run through, a shiny old car sitting in a parking lot waiting to be shot in all its glory. But really, in the end, that’s what makes it so interesting. By being so condensed, it allows it to make its small, yet significant, messages without ruining it all.

Brick is a film noir set in our own times, with people our age, and with people who are violent to others and receive violence in return. It is a film about power, and in the end it held some over me. I sat and chatted with Amy for an hour and a half waiting for it to continue, having only seen the first 5 minutes. Maybe I’m easily manipulated, but I felt that the film assaulted my mind and my senses enough to justify that power. And in the end, it is those elements that make this a film worth seeing.

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