To the DVD player for film noir-goes-adolescent Brick - it's Raymond Chandler doing GCSEs.
Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt (superb in the outstanding, traumatic Mysterious Skin) as a high school gumshoe drawn into a web of drugs and violence after his girlfriend's murder, Brick is a disturbing glimpse into a world we've all experienced: school.
The story is as complex as all the best films noirs: Brendan (Gordon-Levitt) finds his estranged girlfriend's corpse in a stream (a nod to Chinatown) while investigating an anguished call from her; it turns out she was involved in the school's drug-dealing clique. Brendan, who is no innocent himself, plunges headfirst into the underworld, meeting the mysterious Laura (Nora Zehetner, channeling Barbara Stanwyck), the thuggish Tug (Noah Fleiss) and the devilish drug-dealing king pin (Lukas Haas) as the dead ends and deceptions pile up.
Who is telling the truth? Who had a motive to kill the girl? Who can Brendan trust? As you might expect, there are double crosses aplenty.
The plot is intriguing, if not wholly original, but Brick succeeds on so many other levels too. Take the evocation of classics noirs with double-speed 30s patter: "Maybe I'll just sit here and bleed at you" is classic Bogart, hard-boiled, while the Vice Principal's "You've helped this office out before" is met with "No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed." It's so rapid and tight that it takes a while to cotton on, but it really sets the mood. Writer and director Rian Johnson must have been eating Raymond Chandler's books for breakfast.
Perhaps the best aspect of Brick is that it fully fleshes out the terrifying world of teenagers without simultaneously undermining it: it doesn't go, Oh, aren't these kids silly with their murder and drug deals! but treats them with deadly seriousness. Setting the film in a school only makes it more frightening: it expands on the rivalries and tensions we have all experienced in the playground and fills it out into full-blown menace. There is a genius moment of humour when the adult world hits the kids' world, but the threat is only temporarily defused, and not even that - it's still lurking just below the surface.
This world is fully realised in all its dark shades, especially where the emotionless violence is concerned. Brendan is the punchbag of a number of hoodlums but gives as good as he gets. He ends up walking round with a permanently bleeding face as a result of his investigations, but Jack Nicholson does have his nose sliced open in Chinatown, so we're still in traditional noir mode.
What contributes most to the dark mood is not just the plot or the patois or even the violence but the visual scheme. The scene is blue and black throughout, often contrasted directly against the barren and bright landscape. Brendan's girlfriend is found at the black, gaping entrance to a tunnel; instead of just leaving us there, we are several times taken right into the pitch blackness. At other times we are hurled blindly into a basement or just see Brendan's bedside clock glowing vividly. The gloom is overwhelming.
Brick has all the darkness, suffering, cruelty and mystery of cinema's best noirs, this time just set in a world where the school game is murder. With another uniquely-textured performance from Gordon-Levitt, Brick takes us all the way into a fully-realised nightmare from which - for Brendan and for us - escape is impossible.