BRICK written and directed by Rian Johnson, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Lukas Haas, Noah Fleiss and Matt O'Leary. 110 minutes. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (April 7). For venues and times, see Movie Listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
New York City - Whatever you do, don't go up to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and say, "Hey, you were that guy on TV, eh? You're famous!"
"I hate that," says the former 3rd Rock From The Sun son, nursing a bottle of water in a hotel suite on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "When I was younger, I loved being an actor. No, I take that back. I loved acting. But I was always neurotically phobic about the recognition that came with it. It made me feel complicit in something evil."
Harsh words. But while the now 20-something actor may always be associated with his six-year stint on one of the cleverer situation comedies of the 1990s, these days he's more likely to be recognized for his work in indie films like Manic and especially last year's Mysterious Skin.
In the latter film, directed by Gregg Araki, Gordon-Levitt sizzled as a hustler with a taste for older men who was haunted by a history of childhood abuse.
It was a completely assured turn, equal parts bravado and vulnerability, oozing the kind of raw emotions you don't get to see on half-hour prime-time TV shows. Move over, James Dean - there's a new rebel on the block.
Now he's about to solidify his rep as filmdom's most intense young adult actor in Brick, Rian Johnson's wickedly smart low-budget noir set in and around a California high school. He plays a loner named Brendan who, like a modern-day Philip Marlowe, tries to find out what happened to his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin) after she disappears and is found dead.
"I look at just about every script that comes along for someone my age," says Gordon-Levitt, dressed in a Lyle Lovett-ish dark blue suit and skinny tie. Odd thing: in person, he comes across as slighter and less brooding. The camera loves his jaw and the shadowy planes of his face.
"Most scripts are bad. Some are good, and you think, 'This could make a good movie.' Brick was just fun to read. It was like a pleasurable book that you wanted to keep reading."
Part of the enjoyment comes from the script's ballsy use of language. Writer/director Johnson, who spent six years financing it after film school, has come up with a tongue-twisting compendium of slang and jargon. "Gats" are guns, drugs are "hop" or "jake" and don't ask what "duck soup" stands for. Not since A Clockwork Orange has a film so revelled in its unique argot.
"The words are a mishmash. Some are taken from Dashiell Hammett, some from the 1950s and some stuff I just made up," explains the cheerful-looking director. "I wanted to establish that we are in a very elevated world. It's not high school as we know it, and words immediately convey that. I love movies like Miller's Crossing or Glengarry Glen Ross, where you have to dig into it a little."
Hovering over the making of the film, though, was the fear that it might descend into parody: kids dressed up like gangsters, tawking tuff and mouthing clichés. Johnson forbade the cast to watch old noir films, especially anything starring Humphrey Bogart.
"I didn't want anyone to feel like they were playing a type," says Johnson. "In one way, that's why I wanted to change the setting. We've all seen the trench coats and the dark alleys. Setting it in a high school - which was actually where I went to school - felt like a new visual cue. I kept thinking, 'If you were John Huston and the script for The Maltese Falcon just fell into your lap, what creative choices would you make to keep it fresh?'"
Gordon-Levitt ended up taking a musical approach to the script, breaking it down into beats and rhythms. He turned to musicians like Tom Waits, Serge Gainsbourg and the Wu-Tang Clan - all artists, he says, "who take really poetic words and speak or speak/sing them."
The gamble pays off. Present in nearly every scene, he brings a mix of stubbornness, defiance and emotional turmoil to each hard-boiled moment.
When the film premiered - along with Mysterious Skin - at Sundance in 2004, Johnson walked away with with a jury award for originality of vision. For Gordon-Levitt, the Sundance one-two punch was especially sweet.
"When I was 15 and 16, the whole explosion in independent American film happened, and it coincided with my getting my driver's licence so I could drive to movies like Pulp Fiction, Sling Blade, Swingers, The Usual Suspects. All of them were really different, but they all came out of this festival called Sundance. It seemed like this mythical, magical place.
"Actually," he adds with a grin, "I had heard about it way earlier, when I was making A River Runs Through It. [Director Robert] Redford gave me a Sundance T-shirt, and I of course had no idea what it meant. So all of this seems like a great coincidence."
Next up is a juicy role in John Madden's film Killshot, based on Elmore Leonard's novel.
"I play a classic Leonard baddie," laughs the actor. "I'm a hyperactive, homicidal Texas maniac who never shuts up. I get to wear cowboy boots, carry around a pistol and ride in a Caddie with Mickey Rourke."
Gordon-Levitt admits that his early TV success made it easier for him to pick and choose his roles carefully. He didn't get trapped in the teen comedy rut. Ditto horror flicks, although he says if a great scary film came along ("like The Shining"), he'd do it in a heartbeat.
And he's got great memories of working on 3rd Rock. Who wouldn't, with smart comic actors like John Lithgow, Jane Curtin and Kristen Johnston on the set?
"But listen," he tells me. "TV shows sell advertising. We'd be having a ball, then NBC would come in with notes for us." He shoots me a nasty look. "NBC was owned by General Electric. So ultimately, we were taking notes from a company that treated our show the same way it treated a toaster."
BRICK (Rian Johnson) Rating: NNNN
I could describe Brick as Chinatown meets The Breakfast Club, but that wouldn't do this fiercely original film justice. First-time feature writer/director Rian Johnson gooses the noir genre by setting his film in and around a SoCal high school. When loner type Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins looking into his ex-girlfriend's (Emilie de Ravin) disappearance, he has to infiltrate the school's cliques, and this soon leads him through an underworld that includes sex, drugs and one scary high school grad (Lukas Haas, deadpan and hilarious).
Johnson ups the stakes by having his characters deliver stylized hard-boiled dialogue. The experiment doesn't always work, but the young cast, headed by the glowering Gordon-Levitt, remains disciplined. Johnson has a good eye for the humour in anachronism and for the desolate concrete corridors of suburbia. A remarkable debut.