By Julia Staben
“And he wants cash on the nail. He's a pot-skulled reef worm with more hop in his head than blood. Why pay for dirt you can't believe?” -- Brick (2005)
I have always been a dialogue person. While I feel visuals in film are the most important to the medium, there’s something that captivates me about the way people speak. In the theatre, where I started my career in the arts, entire stories were arranged through only dialogue and it became an obsession of mine. I loved musicals because they turned cadence into poetry, and then poetry into music and for the first time I felt like words were accessible even though at the time I was overwhelmed by the idea of language. This is what first got me hooked on film noir. Nothing gave me more pleasure than watching people quip back and forth in street slang. I used to walk around saying “The cats in the bag and the bag’s in the river” and other such idioms, and people would look at me as if I had lost my mind. I thought I was pretty smart.
Then I watched Brick (2005) and I was completely humiliated.
The directorial debut of Rian Johnson, who would later move on to direct The Brothers Bloom (2008), episodes of Breaking Bad (2008-2013) and most recently, episodes of BoJack Horseman (2014), Brick is a film which isn’t visually stunning, but makes up for it with atmosphere and density. That is not to say the story here is particularly complex, but if I were to describe this film in one way it would be “inaccessible.” That isn’t an insult. Johnson’s story about a high-school boy who gets tied up trying to solve the murder of his ex-girlfriend knows it’s a neo-noir and understands precisely what that entails. King pins, drugs, scandals, murder cases, melodramatic revelations, we know the schtick. However, what people remember the most about this film, myself included, is the dialogue. A bit too witty and snide for its own good, the conversations in Brick are so thick with jargon you’re going to need urban dictionary open on your laptop while you watch it. The language alienates its viewers, letting them know right from the start that if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. And while most films would be berated for this kind of self-gratifying smugness, Brick knows that you can’t just enter its world and be expected to be accepted with open arms. You have to learn the beats, feel the flow, put on subtitles even. Just know you’re not getting any handouts.
As audience members, I feel we can get complacent sometimes, comfortable. We’ve grown accustomed to alienating visuals, disturbing imagery. Art critics tend to separate what can or should be alienating and what should be accessible. Brick isn’t my favorite film, but it’s the first film I watched that made me question what I was watching not just in a thematic way, but in a structural way. And the more you watch the film, the more you start to understand that the dialogue is not just jargon, it’s a social code. As in the books of Raymond Chandler, Brick is a celebration of American hyper-masculinity, of the grey underworld and sits beneath urbanization. And the guy we follow through those streets is the man who knows this turf better than anyone.
The guy can talk the talk, even if we have no idea what he’s talking about.