Sunday, March 25, 2018


SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.

Those stories that fit into the category of “film noir” usually have a twisted mystery at their centers, but these movies also contain a hard-boiled, cynical view of society, and there is usually criminal activity involved. Many times, there is a “femme fatale” who acts as a seductress, and who appears more innocent than she really is. The main character may be trying to figure out the scheme and the schemers, but he is not a typical “good guy,” and, instead, has his own dark side. Just a few examples are The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Chinatown. The unique twist in this 2005 film is that all the players are high school students and very young adults. This unusual take on the genre allows for some comic contrast between the age of the characters and the activities in which they are engaged. But, don’t let that fool you. There is real danger here, and the jarring takeaway is that we live in a broken society which has corrupted the innocence of its youth.
The movie (written and directed by Rian Johnson) begins with an out of focus shot that resolves into clarity, which is the journey of both the main character, Brendan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and the audience. We immediately know we are in a precarious place since there is a body of a young girl on the ground and Brendan is slumped against a wall, as if his feet have been knocked out from under him, as he stares at the corpse. Behind the dead girl is a dark tunnel (suggesting the mystery and foreboding road to travel on to understand what has happened). The body lies in a small stream of water that flows through the center of the scene. For me, it suggests the shower scene in Psycho, where a young woman was also killed in a place where water flowed, and we saw her life drain out of her. The soundtrack reminded me of an electrified version of the one in the suspense movie Experiment in Terror, starring Glenn Ford and Lee Remick.
The story then shifts to two days earlier. Brendan finds a note in his locker to go to a public phone booth, where he receives a call from his ex-girlfriend, Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She hasn’t been seen for a few months, and she sounds distraught. She rambles about “Poor Frisco,” “Pin,” “brick,” and “Tug,” none of which makes any sense to Brendan. He knows she is nearby because she mentions something about seeing him. A car zooms past Brendan, and someone flicks a cigarette out the window as Emily screams. The cigarette has a blue arrow on it (pointing to the person who is behind what is going on?). Brendan consults with his smart friend, Brain (Matt O’Leary), who appropriately holds a solved Rubik's Cube. Brendan wants to know who Emily has been having lunch with, which calls attention to Brendan being a high school version of a private investigator. Brain says that Emily had been hanging out with the football player, Brad (Brian White), and his girlfriend, Laura (Nora Zehetner), a cheerleader. Brain, referring to the high ranking in the student body of these two, calls them, “the cream on the upper crust.” (In “film noir” works, the language is often stylized, with a wisecracking, metaphorical style present).

Brain apparently has locker numbers memorized and he tells Brendan the one that belongs to Emily. Brendan breaks into her locker and finds a ripped piece of a picture, colored red, of a woman, and also one of Kara (Meagan Good), a former girlfriend and drug dealing partner of Brendan’s. (This reveal shows Brendan’s dark past, which he apparently wanted to leave behind). Brendan finds the rest of the woman’s picture in Kara’s dressing room at a theater (which implies she knows how to put on a fictitious show for others, and thus is someone who is not to be trusted. This mistrust is confirmed when Kara says she doesn’t know Emily). The missing part of the photo suggests the need to put pieces of a puzzle together, an aspect of the film noir form. The photo is an invitation to a Halloween party in January (suggesting how things are out of sync here, and the use of costumes implies that we are dealing with people who are not really who they appear to be). Brendan calls the phone number on the photo and Laura answers. What follows is a good example of the sarcastic banter that permeates this script, and which highlights the discrepancy between the age of the characters and how jaded they have become in so short a time. Laura asks who is calling. Brendan says, “I won’t waste your time. You don’t know me.” Laura says, “I know everyone, and I have all the time in the world.” Brendan then quips, “Ah, the folly of youth.” He gets an invite to the party by dropping Emily’s name, who had an invitation. Brendan knows he does not travel in the realm of the “upper crust,” but what he eventually learns is that those privileged inhabitants sometimes descend into his world to wreak havoc (shades of The Great Gatsby?)
Brendan shows up at the party, and he is not in costume, which makes it look like he is someone not putting on a how, and is genuine, at least at this point. Laura’s place is the size of a mansion, confirming her upper crust status. Brad is there, drunk, complaining about how the coach isn’t putting him in the game. Laura and Brendan talk alone, and they drink alcohol like grown-ups, again inconsistent with their age group. The dialogue continues to be in that wisecracking style as Laura tells the quiet Brendan, “Quit your yapping.” Laura acts like she understands Brendan, and his feelings for Emily. She says, “You think nobody sees you. Eating lunch behind the portables. Loving some girl like she’s all there is, anywhere, to you. I’ve always seen you. Or maybe I liked Emily. Maybe I see what you’re trying to do for her, trying to help her, and I don’t know anybody who would do that for me.” But Brendan has seen how she has played Brad, who he considers a “sap,” and says to her after her speech, “Now you are dangerous.” It is a line that comes from The Maltese Falcon, and hints at Laura’s femme fatale role. Brendan tells her that he can’t trust her. He smartly says, “With you behind me I’d have to tie one eye up watching both your hands, and I can’t spare it.” Laura leaves him to talk to someone, but Brendan spies on her as she meets up with a guy who turns out to be the Tug (Noah Fleiss) that Emily mentioned on the phone with Brendan. Tug looks angry while talking with Laura.

Laura does point Brendan to a cafe called Coffee and Pie, Oh My, where he encounters Dode (Noah Segan). He is a stoner, who has several fellow dopers with him. Brendan pressures him about Emily’s whereabouts, and even starts beating him up. (Brendan looks like a disheveled nerd with his glasses on, but he takes them off when he knows he’s going to get physical, which seems like a humorous version of Clark Kent turning into Superman). Dode says that Emily is his girlfriend now. Brendan tells Dode he wants to hear the truth from Emily herself, and that she should meet him where he eats lunch. The young guys with Dode appear to want to stop Brendan’s interrogation, but he wittily stands up to them when he says, “Throw one at me if you want, hash head. I’ve got all five senses and I slept last night. That puts me six up on the lot of you.” They back off. Dode runs off, and Brendan follows him. Unhappily, Brendan does see Dode meet up with Emily, hug her, and he gives her a slip of paper.

Emily does show up where Brendan eats lunch. He sits on a wall at school during lunch break, as if straddling the line between childhood and adulthood, innocence and a world of crime. He’s tried to rescue her before, and in a flashback, we see them arguing. He had turned his drug partner, Jerr, in because he felt that Jerr and Emily were developing a relationship that would harm her. She says now that she does not like that he wants to run her life. Despite her calling him earlier for help, she says that he should forget about her. She has made her choice as to those she wants to associate with. She tries to assert her separateness from Brendan when she tells him, “Stop getting angry because where I want to be at is different from where you want to be at.” She tells Brendan that she loved him but now the only way to help her is to let her go. While they hug goodbye, Brendan takes a notebook from her. He sees a symbol on the note that Dode gave her. It looks like the letter “A” but with a curved top. Brain doesn’t know what it means but says it could be a symbol for a meeting place. Later, Brendan wakes up with the realization that the symbol represents the place in front of the tunnel. By the time he gets there, he finds Emily’s dead body, and we have returned to the first shot of the movie. Now we hear footsteps in the darkness of the tunnel and Brendan runs after the sound. He is knocked down and we don’t see the person fleeing the scene.

Brendan is now desperate to find out what happened. He goes to Brain but does not tell him about Emily’s death. He hides her body in the tunnel and we have a flashback where Emily accuses Brendan of not loving her. Brendan, almost in tears, says “You’re the only thing I love! You’re the only thing I love.” We see here that there is an emotional side to Brendan that he covers up with a tough exterior to survive in this strange world to survive. But it also shows how empty his life is now that the only person he cared about is dead. When Brain asks if Brendan can “raise her,” Brandan says no, but the line takes on added significance because he can’t “raise” the dead, except in memories. Brendan wants Brain’s help to figure out what Emily was referring to when he talked to her on the phone two days earlier. Brain says “pin” can refer to the “Kingpin,” who is the local head of drug traffic for young people, including rich clients, like Brad, the football player. He also says that “Frisco” could be a boy who was a sophomore the previous year, “real trash.”  
Brendan wants to talk to Pin (Lukas Haas), so he picks a fight with Brad in the school parking lot where Brad is still whining about how he hasn’t been named as a starter on the team. It is a funny scene at the beginning as Brendan says he was impressed by Brad’s outburst and is actually a scout who wants to sign him up. Brad just keeps saying “Yeah,” and Brendan tells him, “There’s a thesaurus in the library. ‘Yeah’ is under ‘Y.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.” After a bloody fight, Brendan knocks Brad out. The Pin’s muscle, Tug, shows up, but instead of taking him to see the Pin, Tug beats up Brendan badly. We then find Brendan in the office of Assistant Vice Principal Trueman (Richard Rountree). He is the first adult we see in the film. For that matter, we never find the students in classrooms, which emphasizes how far removed these young people are from what we would consider the average safe world of teenagers protected by grownups (although based on the current armed attacks on schools in the U. S., maybe Brick’s dangerous world view is more accurate). In keeping with the teen noir feel of the film, this school official sounds more like a police lieutenant who has made deals with Brendan in the past, such as when he squealed on Jerr. Brendan says of that, “I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.” Even Trueman is impressed with how well Brendan can turn a phrase, and says, “very well put.” We then get the only time an adult is shown as a good influence, because Brendan attributes his verbal skill to an English teacher, who was “tough but fair.” In Brendan’s hard world, that is what he respects. Brendan says he is not Trueman’s “boy,” and is not on anybody’s side but his own (sounding like Bogart in Casablanca). So, he isn’t there to rat on a list of people Trueman wants to run by him. He and Trueman make a deal to give Brendan some time so that he can deliver some wrongdoers.

Brain informs Brendan that Dode is missing, and he is involved with Kara. Brain also says that Laura has been asking about Brendan. While walking through the parking lot, Brendan sees Tug’s car and is ready to break into it with a piece of cinderblock. Tug approaches quickly, in his white wool cap and white T-shirt, his muscles bulging (white is usually associated with a “good” guy, but just the opposite here). Tug again pounds Brendan, but the latter keeps getting up and says he wants to talk to the Pin. Tug, grudgingly starting to admire Brendan, puts him in his car trunk, so Brendan won’t know Pin’s whereabouts. Brendan is able to pop the trunk and sees that they drive to a suburban house, and he notices the address.
Pin also dresses up (like those at the Halloween party). He wears a cape that makes him look like a vampire, and he uses a cane (but we find out later that he has problems walking, which hints at his underlying vulnerability). He is very cool and steady in his speech, and unblinking, which results in a sort of intimidating presence. (His nickname sounds like he might “pin’ you down, like an insect in a collection). Brendan says he knows where Pin lives and could divulge the information to Trueman. Tug starts beating on Brendan again, but Laura is there (cementing her association with these criminal types), and she stops Tug.
When Brendan can speak again, they go into Pin’s kitchen. We now have the second adult in the story, Pin’s mother (Reedy Gibbs). This scene is the best one in the film that shows the contrasting worlds of the innocent child and the corrupted young adult. Mom offers Brendan cereal and milk and Pin has a cookie in front of him, which he later munches on like a kid as he talks of his criminal business. Mom is very maternal, but although she doesn’t acknowledge her son’s activities, she obviously knows about them, as she discreetly leaves so that business can be discussed. Pin warns Brendan, wittily, that Tug is “only a fist away.” To gain credibility, Brendan admits to seeing Trueman and that he had given up his old partner for personal reasons, but can now inform Pin of the authorities’ plans, and can feed disinformation to Trueman. Pin says he will check out Brendan’s tale, and will then either hire him or turn Tug loose on him, depending on the results.

Laura gives Brendan a ride back to school in her vintage Ford Thunderbird (the car is something a person in an old film noir story would drive, not a 21st century student). She tells Brendan that Emily wanted to be with Pin, Kara, and the rest of that gang, but she didn’t fit in. (Emily was a tortured soul who was caught between the worlds of, as William Blake would call them, innocence and experience). Laura says that Emily stole a “brick” of heroin because of her addiction. Dode calls Brendan and says he saw Brendan moving Emily’s body, and he threatens to expose Brendan for his involvement in Emily’s death. Pin hires Brendan. When the two of them walk on the beach together, Pin says he was recently involved in a very lucrative deal, but he won’t say anything else. Pin admits to liking to read Tolkien’s Hobbit books. He says, “His descriptions of things are really good. He makes you wanna be there.” This admission on Pin’s part shows how there is still a part of him that yearns for a child’s enjoyment of an imaginative story, and maybe how he wishes he could escape from his scary reality into that other world. His cape and cane suggest he still enjoys playing dress up.

Brain tells Brendan that the boy Frisco was found in a coma after taking heroin that was poisoned with laundry detergent. Brendan sneaks into the Pin’s house and finds stacks of money hidden behind a desk drawer. He goes into a dark room with no electricity. He uses a mirror to reflect sunlight so he can see. He literally and figuratively shines a light on the dark deeds being carried out. He finds a brick of heroin. He encounters Tug, who appears distraught. Brendan gains his confidence because he says he thinks that Pin is holding information back, which he needs to protect himself. Tug says there were ten bricks, and eight were sold. The ninth went missing, but it was later anonymously returned. It was the one that Frisco sampled, and which poisoned him. The tenth one is the one Brendan discovered. When Brendan says he heard something about Emily being involved with the missing brick, Tug pretends that he doesn’t know Emily. But, Pin shows up and lets it become known that Emily and Tug were romantically involved.

Pin says someone has information about the missing Emily and that they are going to meet him (Brendan knows it’s Dode). Before the meeting, Brendan, who is sick from all the blood he has swallowed from his beatings (he may be symbolically ill from how violent his life has become), encounters Dode. He tells Brendan that he believes Brendan killed Emily when he found out that she was going to have Dode’s baby. Of course, this is shattering news to Brendan. Dode now wants to expose Brendan and get money from Pin for the information. The meeting with Dode, Pin, Tug, and Brendan takes place at the tunnel. Tug’s rage is evident as he pulls apart a piece of rope as Dode starts to talk about Emily and her being pregnant. Before Dode can try to implicate Brendan, Tug, who is in a jealous rage at the thought of Dode impregnating his girlfriend, shoots and kills Dode.
Brendan was so sick he passed out and wakes up in Tug’s home. Pin already admitted that Tug was getting out of control, and his killing Dode was the last straw. A war between Tug and Pin is looming. Tug basically admits to killing Emily in anger over the pregnancy. Laura comes into the room where Brendan is resting and the two become intimate. But then, Brendan notices that Laura was smoking a cigarette with a blue arrow on it. He finds out that Tug doesn’t smoke cigarettes. Brendan starts to carry out a plan. He asks to borrow Tug’s car to throw off anybody who might be following him. He says he will mediate a peace between Tug and Pin. Laura says she doesn’t want Brendan to go to this meeting because she thinks it will be dangerous. Brendan tells Brain to call the cops to have them show up at Pin’s at the end of the meeting and that there will be drugs in Tuck’s car. At the meeting, Pin thinks that Tug poisoned the 9th brick and wants proof that the last one is okay. Brendan offers to try it, but the last brick can’t be found. A battle breaks out between Tug’s men and Pin’s, each accusing the other group of treachery. Tug and Pin begin to struggle, and Brendan does not answer Pin’s pleas for help. Brendan escapes, and we see that he has placed Emily’s body in Tug’s car trunk as the police arrive.
Six people died at Pin’s including Pin and Tug. Brendan sees Laura on the school’s playing field (where opponents do battle, referring to what has and will take place). Brendan tells her (and us) about her involvement in the crimes committed. She was the one in the car, tossing her cigarette, when Emily screamed after catching a glimpse at the person that set her up. It was Laura who stole the 9th brick and poisoned it so that Pin’s reputation would be undermined, and which caused Frisco’s coma. She set up Emily as the one who took it. Once she learned that Emily was pregnant she urged her to meet with Tug and be honest about the baby. Laura knew about Tug’s temper, and figured that he would kill Emily, thus eliminating any chance that she would incriminate Laura in the theft of the brick. Laura even took the last brick to start a war between Pin and Tug. That is why she warned Brendan not to show up at the meeting. Brendan has already written a note for Truman telling him of Laura’s crimes, and we see Laura’s locker being opened and the last brick discovered.
Laura has a parting shot of her own to fire off. Emily was ready to abort the baby, but didn’t. It was three months old, so it was really Brendan’s child. In a noir story, although wrongdoers may be punished, so are the innocent, and there is no happy ending, no matter the age group of those involved.

Next time, a special post on favorite movie lines.

1 comment:

  1. I blog often and I seriously thank you for your content.
    The article has truly peaked my interest. I am going to book mark your website and keep checking for new details about once a week.
    I opted in for your Feed too.


Please share your thoughts about the movies discussed here.