Release Date: 2005
Length: 110 minutes
Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Lukas Haas, Emilie de Ravin
Rian Johnson is a fellow who has failed of his promise, I guess. If one is only familiar with one of his movies, then it’s almost certainly The Last Jedi. One is also likely to have strong feelings about that. Before this, he made a decent time-travel themed movie: Looper and a decent movie about heists and con-men: The Brothers Bloom. Before both of those, however, he made his first movie.
Johnson’s first movie was a low-budget work with only a few borderline stars and a bunch of unknowns. It has a weird plot, strange dialogue, limited sets, effects, etc. And, frankly, it was wonderful. This is the movie that boosted him to get a real budget from a real studio and hire big stars to make movies and eventually led him to make a Star Wars movie. This first film is a noir; a private-eye film set in a Southern California high school around the turn of the century. I know, I know, this sounds like a recipe for a disaster, but what actually happens is a snappy little film that punches well above its weight.
Gordon-Levitt plays Brendan, the detective. He gets a call from his ex-girlfriend Emily and she seems scared, in need of help, but also confused. She says things that are hard to understand, and Brendan doesn’t quite follow. She gets very frightened, and hangs up. Brendan, a man with a torch if ever there was one, goes looking for her, but the finding is not a joyous reunion. Without spoiling too much, he shifts to a quest for answers and, ultimately, vengeance.
To obtain what he seeks, he is forced to dive headlong into the school’s illicit underworld of drugs and money, deal with the various cliques and The Man in the person of the vice-principal (an excellent cameo by Richard Roundtree!), and attempt to sort things out without getting dragged down himself. Having once been a minor drug dealer himself before getting out for the sake of his relationship, he sifts through old acquaintances and makes new ones while working his way up in the dealers’ hierarchy.
But even after he has the bald facts of the matter, he wants more. In the true detective fiction style, he is after the person behind it all. The one who set events in motion, not just the person doing the physical deed.
The dialogue throughout sparkles, borrowing heavily from ’30s gangster films and noirs. It’s reminiscent of Bogart and Edward G. Robinson and Elisha Cook, Jr.The movie draws you in, makes you forget the setting and then hits you with a moment of realization that brings you back to remembering that these are little more than children. They are young men and women who are not fully mature, but choose or are forced to act otherwise because most of the adults that should be aiding them are absent.
It’s a strange mix, no question. The sparse style (dictated by the lack of budget in large degree, no doubt), the deliberately archaic language, the unusual juxtaposition of story and characters, but for me it works. It’s clearly and firmly in the noir tradition. It’s simply been set in a different time and place. It ain’t Shakespeare, but the effect on the viewer is like unto a Shakespeare adaptation set in a different time period. It’s the story and dialogue that you are familiar with, being spoken by people who are not dressed in the corresponding style. It’s still an eminently watchable film.
(For an extra treat, make your viewing a double-feature with The Maltese Falcon. You can thank me later.)