The Daily Stream: Brick Is A Reminder That Rian Johnson Has Always Made Great Murder Mysteries

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: "Brick" (2005)

Where You Can Stream It: Starz; available to rent on other digital platforms

The Pitch: It was May 2006. After — wisely, I might add — deciding to pass on the newly-released "X-Men: The Last Stand" on the advice of others, some friends and I visited our closest arthouse theater to see "Brick." All that we really knew about the film going in was that it was some kind of noir-style murder mystery set in high school. That and it starred Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who we hadn't seen on the big screen since he was still a wee dorky cutie in "10 Things I Hate About You" (a touchstone movie for anyone who came of age in the 1990s).

"Brick," as we soon found out, is far more than your average indie quirkfest. It's a full-throated love letter to Golden Age noir films in which teenagers trade hard-boiled zingers in between going to class and awkwardly rehearsing the new school play. Gordon-Levitt stars as Brendan, a cynical loner drawn in the style of Sam Spade, save for the whole being a high schooler thing. After receiving a panicked phone call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), Brendan finds himself pulled into a sinister maelstrom involving drug kingpins, a missing "brick" of heroin, and a popular rich girl named Laura (Nora Zehetner).

Can Brendan crack the case before things turn deadly? In keeping with the fatalism of noir, the movie's haunting opening shot alone makes it clear: Happy endings aren't on the menu.

Why it's essential viewing

"Brick," of course, is the movie that shot writer/director Rian Johnson to fame, starting with its Special Jury Prize win at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. Even with the limitations of a $450,000 budget, Johnson's stellar sense of craft is on full display in the film. The "Last Jedi" helmer fills every frame with striking compositions and makes clever use of the high school setting to integrate noir motifs like mirrors, smoke, and people conversing in dimly-lit areas where no decent soul would dare to venture. (In this case, my own former stomping grounds in the school library.) Other scenes nod to classic noir moments like the legendary foot chase in "The Third Man."

This being a Johnson joint, "Brick" tap-dances its way through different tones. The movie is littered with priceless deadpan jokes like a stone-faced Brendan tying a henchman's straw into a knot or an oblivious mother cheerfully handing out snacks to the members of rival drug gangs on the verge of going to war. But for all of its idiosyncratic elements (like when a teen drug boss waxes poetic about "the hobbit books"), "Brick" never struggles to amble between scenes of comedy and drama. Whenever the film takes a turn for the serious, it does so with the utmost conviction.

In a sense, this makes "Brick" the perfect metaphor for what high school life is like for teenagers. From the outside looking in, this world of kids playing at being grown-ups is often silly and low-stakes. But to those on the inside? Nothing else could be more important.

'She called me a dirty word'

It would've been easy for "Brick" to feel like a one-note joke stretched to fill a feature-length film, had it failed to do right by its core murder mystery plot and characters. Instead, there are times when you forget you're watching a movie where high schoolers talk and act like they're the world-weary adults in "The Maltese Falcon." This also allows "Brick" to reframe the juvenility and sexism of certain noir conventions as a wry form of social commentary. Here, for example, the femme fatale isn't a woman who does cruel things for the sake of it, they're a privileged, wealthy teenager who's never had to concern themselves with anyone or anything beyond their own self-interests.

When you lay out its individual ingredients — a strong grasp of visual storytelling, off-beat humor, "eat the rich" themes, and a story involving foul play — you realize "Brick" holds the key to not only the "Knives Out" films but also Rian Johnson's love of whodunits and murder mysteries in general. In hindsight, we probably should've realized that he would be the one to help bring this subgenre roaring back to life long before he did. As for those who've yet to watch "Brick," what better time to correct that misstep than in the midst of Noirvember itself?