Brendan Frye (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a teen-age loner compelled to dive into the gritty underbelly of his high school’s social world when his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin, Lost) reaches out to him, only to turn up dead shortly thereafter. Brendan happens to be the all-knowing, hard-boiled private dick type, not only prepared to take action, kick butt and roll with the lacerating punches, but worldly-wise and sophisticated far beyond his years. (At first take Brendan’s character seems smart, hip in a grunge sort of way. As a fantasy projection this works; taken as a serious character study his character rapidly devolves into something puerile and insipid.)

Brendan is able to trust only one person in the whole world, his one true friend The Brain (Matt O’Leary), as he sets out to investigate Emily’s disappearance and murder. Brendan soon finds himself in deeper complications, tangling with the drug-peddling criminal underworld of his suburban high school. He passes his own variant spins of what is happening along to the school vice principle (Richard Roundtree), as if misleading the prison warden about the inmates’ secret vendettas and escape plans.

Brendan’s investigation unearths plenty of his fellow students’ secrets, as he finds himself pulled closer to the treacherously ensnaring reach of the crime syndicate. In short order Brendan will weasel his way into their inner circle to come face to face with oddball and drug king pin The Pin (Lukas Haas). Along the way he crosses paths and wills with the syndicate’s muscle Tugger (Noah Fleiss), debutante-ish rich girl Laura (Nora Zehetner), drug-addicted Dode (Noah Segan) and a whole crew of high-school thugs. The frozen-hearted heroes match the psychological complexities of the bad guys, quirk for quirk, in a way suggestive of A History of Violence. The mountain of complicated plot twists is garnished with complicated dialog, heavily peppered with neologisms from this particular underworld. The end effect resembles Pulp Fiction in more ways than one.

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s first feature-length film, Brick was distinguished at the Sundance Film Festival with a Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision. An homage to the hard-boiled noir tradition of 1930s Hollywood, Brick evokes a sardonic-horrific (teen-aged "cool"), Hopper-like vision (emotionally empty suburban landscapes) of a post-Godfather universe (cool, smart, and efficient trumps caring or compassionate). The film takes many of its verbal cues, tone, plot, and eccentricities from Dashiell Hammett, while borrowing inventively from Kubrick’s vision of the disaffected, anarchic, amoral youth of A Clockwork Orange. Taking another cue from the infamous incident at Columbine High School, wherein disaffected suburban high-schoolers massacred their classmates, Brick probes beneath the empty, bland surfaces of the southern California suburban landscape. Its Thumbsuckerlike surface is pure illusion. Brick also happens to be a nifty visual catalog of scenes and visions of innumerable other films.

In some ways Brick is too precociously clever for its own good. It appeals strongly to the Tarantino-trained taste for complexity, self-irony, film quotes embedded within film quotes, and is intended to require multiple viewings to extract and savor layer upon layer of richly and complexly flavored brain candy. Beyond all the cleverness, perhaps the single most satisfying cinematic experience of Brick lies in witnessing director Johnson’s matter-of-fact transformation of the contemporary American suburban landscape into a moral stage of mythic proportion. The hand-held camcorder used as a backyard toy achieves a (perhaps not) surprising apotheosis in Rian Johnson’s expert handling.

Les Wright