The film's narrative centers on a hardboiled detective story set in a Californian suburb. Most of the main characters are high school students. The film draws heavily in plot, characterization, and dialogue from hardboiled classics, especially those by Dashiell Hammett. The title refers to a block of heroin, compressed roughly to the size and shape of a brick.
The film won the Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and received positive reviews from critics. It has come to be regarded as a cult classic.
High school student Brendan Frye lives a lonely existence following his break up with ex-girlfriend Emily Kostich and the betrayal of his friend Jerr to the authorities. Brendan discovers a note leading him to a pay phone, where he receives a phone call from a terrified Emily begging him for help. She mentions a "brick", "poor Frisco", "Tug", and the "Pin", before abruptly hanging up. Her fear appears to have been caused by a passing black Ford Mustang, from which a distinctive-looking cigarette was thrown. Upon asking for information from his acquaintance named Brain, Brendan's search for Emily leads him to Kara, another ex-girlfriend - which further leads him to a Halloween party attended by a flirtatious Laura and her boyfriend, Brad Bramish.
Laura points Brendan in the direction of a local diner, where he arranges a meeting through Dode, leader of a stoner clique that Emily belongs to. Upon meeting, Emily recants what she had said on the phone and tells Brendan to let her go. Brendan steals her notepad during the encounter and finds a note that leads him directly to her dead body. Emotionally distraught by her death, Brendan takes it upon himself to solve her murder, enlisting the aid of Brain. Brendan hides the body to avoid police intrusion. Brendan discovers that "The Pin" is a local drug baron. After finding out that Brad is a regular customer of Pin's, Brendan sets about getting his attention by beating up Brad Bramish. Afterwards, Brendan is beaten up by an unknown young man while speaking on the phone with Brain.
Brendan visits Vice Principal Trueman to ask the vice principal if he could investigate the events, without mentioning Emily's death, as a favour for turning in Jerr. While Trueman allows Brendan to continue his investigation, he warns that if Brendan gets caught, Trueman will "throw him under the bus". Brendan visits Kara, to request more information about the Pin, although she fobs him off. Later while walking, Brendan sees the same black Ford Mustang in a parking lot. Before attempting to break into the car, he is noticed and beaten up by the car's owner, who is the man who beat him previously. Brendan asks the man several times to meet The Pin. Reluctant at first, going so far as to drive away and then come back again, the young man takes Brendan to The Pin.
Brendan meets with The Pin and persuades him to consider Brendan for a spot in his operation. It is also revealed that the unknown man is Tug, The Pin's main grunt and muscle. The Pin tells Brendan he will either hire him or rub him out by the next day. On the walk back home Laura tells Brendan that The Pin had previously rejected Emily's attempt to join, so she stole The Pin's brick. Laura then offers to help Brendan, but he distrusts her. While Brendan awaits a response from The Pin at school, he is slashed by a knife wielding man. After a chase, Brendan incapacitates the assailant and The Pin accepts him. Brendan gets a call from Dode, who says he saw Brendan hide Emily's body and, believing Brendan is the murderer, vows to ruin him. Brendan meets with The Pin, who suspects an uprising from Tug.
Brain reports that "poor Frisco" is Frisco Farr, a student who fell into a coma after injecting poorly-cut heroin. At The Pin's house, Tug tells Brendan that The Pin received a shipment of ten bricks and sold eight; one was stolen and replaced with another that had been doctored with detergent, causing Frisco's coma, and the 10th brick remains to be sold. The Pin arrives and tells Tug about hearing from someone who knows what happened to Emily. Brendan, weakened from several recent fistfights, intercepts Dode before the meeting and discovers Emily was pregnant when she died. Dode hints to Tug and The Pin that he has information about who killed Emily, saying it is someone very close, but Tug goes berserk and beats Dode before shooting him in the head. Tug then threatens The Pin, who walks away as Brendan faints from a coughing fit. Brendan awakens in Tug's bedroom, where Tug says he's at war with The Pin.
Brendan confronts Kara, accusing her of manipulating Dode by telling him Emily was carrying his baby and pushing him to sell his information to The Pin. Brendan arranges a meeting between Tug and The Pin, and waits in Tug's bed; Laura enters to comfort him as he sobs over Emily, and they have sex. Brendan recognizes her post-sex cigarette as the same distinctive brand that was dropped from Tug's black Mustang after Emily was frightened during the first phone call. At the meeting, chaos erupts when it is discovered that the tenth brick is now missing. Tug beats The Pin to death while Brendan flees, escaping just as police arrive. As he goes he passes the trunk of Tug's car, where he has hidden Emily's body to ensure that police pin her murder on Tug.
The next day, Brendan meets with Laura in the school's football field. Brendan explains to Laura that he knows she set Emily up to take the fall for Laura's theft of the ninth brick. She further manipulated Emily into meeting Tug who ultimately killed her, after letting him believe he was responsible for Emily's pregnancy. It is revealed that Laura later stole the tenth brick as well. Brendan tells Laura he has put this truth in a note to Vice Principal Trueman of the school, who will find the brick in Laura's locker if, in fact, what he says is true. Laura vindictively tells Brendan that Emily expressed regret that she couldn't keep her pregnancy because she did not love the prospective father, and that Emily was three months pregnant when she died, implying that the baby was his. Brendan watches Laura walk away.Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan Frye
Emilie de Ravin as Emily Kostich
Nora Zehetner as Laura Dannon
Matt O'Leary as "The Brain"
Noah Fleiss as Tugger "Tug"
Lukas Haas as "The Pin"
Brian J. White as Brad Bramish
Meagan Good as Kara
Noah Segan as "Dode"
Richard Roundtree as Assistant Vice Principal Trueman
The origins of Brick were Rian Johnson's obsessions with Dashiell Hammett's novels. Hammett was known for hardboiled detective novels, and Johnson wanted to make a straightforward American detective story. He had discovered Hammett's work through an interview of the Coen brothers about their 1990 gangster film, Miller's Crossing. He read Red Harvest (1929) and then moved on to The Maltese Falcon (1930) and The Glass Key (1931), the latter of which had been the main influence for the Coens' film. Johnson had grown up watching detective films and film noir. Reading Hammett's novels inspired him to make his own contribution. He realized that this would result in a mere imitation and set his piece in high school to keep things fresh. Of the initial writing process he remarked "it was really amazing how all the archetypes from that detective world slid perfectly over the high school types". He also wanted to disrupt the visual traditions that came from the genre. Once he started making Brick, he found it "very much about the experience of being a teenager to me". Johnson maintained that the film was not autobiographical.
Johnson wrote the first draft in 1997 after graduating from USC School of Cinematic Arts a year earlier. He spent the next seven years pitching his script, but no one was interested, because the material was too unusual to make with a first-time director. Johnson estimated the minimal amount of money for which he could make the film, and asked friends and family for backing. His family were in the construction industry, and contributed enough to encourage others to contribute. After Johnson had acquired about $450,000 for the film's budget, Brick began production in 2003.
Although the film was shot in 20 days, Johnson spent a great deal of time beforehand refining the script and three months rehearsing with the cast. He had seen Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a film called Manic (2001), met with him, and knew that he wanted to cast the young actor. He encouraged the cast to read Hammett but not to watch any noir films, because he did not want them influencing their performances. Instead, he had them watch Billy Wilder comedies like The Apartment (1960) and other comedies like His Girl Friday (1940). He was initially nervous working with a professional cast and crew for the first time but as soon as he started filming, this feeling went away and he had a good experience.
Johnson shot the film in his hometown of San Clemente, California on 35 mm film stock. Much of the film takes place at San Clemente High School, which he attended. He enlisted current students to work on the film, shooting on weekends. The cinematographer was Steve Yedlin, a film school friend who had been involved with the project since the script was written.
For the telephone booth scenes, Johnson and crew filmed deep in the San Clemente suburbia. The same sign for the cross streets of Sarmentoso and Camino del Rio still stands. However, the phone booth itself was a prop the production department added in for the film.
Coffee and Pie Oh My! was a Carrows restaurant, but it has since been abandoned.
The drain tunnel from the film is located just down the street from the San Clemente High School football field and goes under the freeway by the Pico exit off ramp.
Johnson had difficulty finding a run-down house for The Pin's base of operations. The production found an appropriate house, but only had a week until it was demolished to rebuild on its lot. The basement was a set that they built, but the Pin’s kitchen and living room still exists at the Blarney Castle bed and breakfast. Johnson also had difficulty finding a mansion for the party scene until, with one day left to find the location, a former Telecom executive and eccentric millionaire allowed them to shoot in his place which was still under construction. The big mansion was packed from floor to ceiling with pay phones dating back to the 50s.
Johnson cited Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns and Shinichiro Watanabe's Cowboy Bebop (1998) as influences on his visualization of the film. He used shoes as a design element for his characters and saw them as an "instant snapshot of the essence" of the characters. He has also stated that many of the film's visual cues were taken from the neo-noir Chinatown (1974) with its wide-open flat spaces.
The majority of the film's special effects were cheaply and efficiently produced using practical and in-camera effects. Early in the film, for example, de Ravin walks toward the camera out of a tunnel as a garbage bag floats downstream and engulfs the camera, transitioning to Joseph Gordon-Levitt back in his character's bedroom. To achieve this, the desired effect was filmed in reverse order. The garbage bag began over the camera and was pulled away during filming, as de Ravin walked backwards into the tunnel. This footage was then cut into a scene in which a garbage bag was simply pulled over Gordon-Levitt's head.
Filming a car driving slowly in reverse, then playing the footage backwards at a higher speed gives the illusion of a car quickly approaching as the camera darts in front of it stylishly. Clever fades give the impression of time changes while smash cuts add tension to a scene in which the protagonist wakes up after passing out. Certain edits were also introduced to the film to time footage to different dialogue, adding certain information and leaving other information out. These edits are noticeable, as the actors' mouths are not always moving in sync with their dialogue. One particular scene, in which de Ravin's character floated toward the camera, used a green screen, but it was edited out of the film before its completion.
The original cut of the film ran over two hours, although it was edited down to 117 minutes for the Sundance Film Festival. An additional 7 minutes were cut before the theatrical release, including a shot of Zehetner's naked back as she put her shirt back on after she and Gordon-Levitt's character had sex. According to a post by Johnson on his own forums, he felt that the nudity felt wrong in the context of the film, and that he preferred to leave the degree of intimacy ambiguous, although he occasionally finds himself second-guessing that decision.
The score to Brick was composed by Johnson's cousin, Nathan Johnson, with additional support and music from The Cinematic Underground. The score harkens back to the style, feel and overall texture of noir films. It features traditional instruments such as the piano, trumpet and violin, and also contains unique and invented instruments such as the wine-o-phone, metallophone, tack pianos, filing cabinets, and kitchen utensils, all recorded with one microphone on an Apple PowerBook. Since Nathan Johnson was in England during most of the production process, the score was composed almost entirely over Apple iChat, with Rian playing clips of the movie for Nathan, who would then score them. The two met in New York City to mix the soundtrack. The soundtrack CD of the movie was released on March 12, 2006 by Lakeshore Records. In addition to Johnson's score, it contains songs by The Velvet Underground, Anton Karas and Kay Armen as well as the big band version of "Frankie and Johnny" performed by Bunny Berigan and a full unedited performance of "The sun whose rays are all ablaze" by Nora Zehetner. Johnson has confirmed that various elements in the film were influenced by Twin Peaks creator David Lynch.
The Region 1 DVD release of Brick was released on August 8, 2006 as part of the Focus Features Spotlight Series. Special features include: selection of deleted and extended scenes with introductions by Johnson; audition footage featuring Nora Zehetner and Noah Segan; and feature audio commentary with Rian Johnson, Nora Zehetner, Noah Segen, producer Ram Bergman, production designer Jodie Tillen, and costume designer Michele Posch.
The Region 2 DVD was released on September 18, 2006.
Brick premiered in the United States on April 7, 2006, in two theaters. It opened to United Kingdom audiences on May 12, 2006 on a limited number of screens. According to the DVD commentary track, the film was made for just under $500,000. The film grossed US$2.07 million in North America and a total of $3.9 million worldwide.
Brick has an approval rating of 80% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 137 reviews and an average score of 7.1 out of 10. The consensus states: "This entertaining homage to noirs past has been slickly and compellingly updated to a contemporary high school setting." and ranked #35 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the "50 Best High School Movies". Based on 34 reviews, Metacritic gave it an average score of 72 out of 100 ("Generally positive reviews").
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times gave the film three out of four stars, stating "[It works] in the sense that the classic Hollywood noirs worked: The story is never clear while it unfolds, but it provides a rich source of dialogue, behavior and incidents." The film's only serious flaw, thought Ebert, was that the characters were not entirely believable and thus it was difficult to care about the outcome of events for the characters. Peter Travers of Rolling Stone also gave the film a positive review, explaining "A spoof would have been easy. Instead, Johnson plunges off the deep end, risking ridicule by shaping this spellbinder with grit and gravitas."
Stephen Holden of The New York Times commented, "Mr. Haas and Mr. Gordon-Levitt at least succeed in evoking the outlines of their characters. But the film's ham-handed reliance on period argot not only wears thin; it keeps the characters, such as they are, at a chilly distance."
Brick ranks 489th on Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time.