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Friday, April 7, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

"Brick": Offbeat mystery signals new filmmaking talent

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2.5 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Brick," with Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Nora Zehetner, Noah Fleiss, Matt O'Leary, Noah Segan, Meagan Good, Emilie de Ravin, Richard Roundtree, Lukas Haas. Written and directed by Rian Johnson. 110 minutes. Rated R for violent and drug content. Neptune, Pacific Place.

A dead body. A regular-guy-turned-detective. A vamp. A heavy. A lot of dimly lit rooms, clipped dialogue, mysterious violence and dark-clad bad guys. Is this noir? No, it's high school.

Rian Johnson's "Brick" is essentially a teenage murder mystery told in the style of a Dashiell Hammett tale, and it's certainly an original. It won the Sundance Film Festival's special jury prize for originality of vision last year. The teens bring a rapid-fire snap to their old-school dialogue and for a while it's intriguing; you wonder how long Johnson can maintain this tricky tone.

Unfortunately, the film can't quite go the distance. As the plot gets increasingly complex (though no more so than "The Maltese Falcon," to which this film gives many nods), "Brick" becomes less clever and more quirky; at times so overwrought that it becomes a little silly. Despite fine work from the young cast, the film is ultimately an interesting experiment rather than a great film.

Its story is familiar detective fiction. Smart, loner high-school-student Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is searching for a girl who disappeared: his former girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin), who called him from a pay phone shortly before vanishing. But we already know what happened to Emily: "Brick" begins with a close-up of her body in a stream, with nearly the entire film as a flashback.

Obsessed with finding out what happened to her, Brendan makes the rounds through his school's various subcultures, wandering through a strange underworld only occasionally punctuated by reality. After a meeting with a gang kingpin in a shadowy basement, somebody's cheerful mother appears and offers Brendan a snack.

It's all cleverly done, down to the details of the costumes (the plastic bracelets worn by the dead girl are surprisingly poignant) and the vivid language, filled with the sort of off-the-wall slang you might hear from a '40s gumshoe.

"Brick" is a first feature for Johnson, and while it's not an unqualified success, it definitely marks him as a young filmmaker to watch.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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