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  • Brick script analysis

    Spoilers ahead.

    Scriptic Clues is intended as an educational site, not a collection of reviews. Like a good student, I’m going to expect that you’ve come prepared; all of my analyses will assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, or the film isn’t fresh in your memory, I strongly recommend you go and watch it first to get the most out of this site.

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    Why I chose this script

    Let’s not mince words here, Brick is pretty much my favorite film of all time. The way Rian Johnson took a knife molded from modern high school drama and rammed it right into the heart of the film noir genre is nothing short of brilliant. Layered plots, rounded characters, fantastic dialogue, I could go on and on about what I love about the film, but instead why don’t we dive into the Brick script.

    Mastery of dialogue

    One of the most egregious sins that we screenwriters can commit is to create unnatural, wooden dialogue. We’ve all come across those on-the-nose lines that drop like a lead balloon in even the best of scripts.

    The reason that bad dialogue sets our teeth on edge is it makes characters feel a bit unreal to us. There’s no way in the world anyone would ever say that line in that situation. This means that the language that characters use is indicative of the world they live in. If the words are ones we’d expect to hear, then the world feels natural and similar to ours.

    In the case of Brick, Johnson uses dialogue masterfully to set his world apart. Dialogue spills out of his characters quick as a whip and smooth as silk. In any other film adolescents delivering these lines would be far too glib. But Johnson creates a world in which these lines and characters are the norm, and we feel comfortable slipping into it because he does it so well.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    You think you’re cute, whoever you are.

    BRENDAN

    Wait’ll you get a load of my felt fedora and spats.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    Who are you? Or I’ll hang up.

    BRENDAN

    You don’t know me – I’ll save you some time.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    I know everyone and I’ve got all the time in the world.

    BRENDAN

    Folly of youth. Ask whose invitation I’ve got.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    (slightly)

    What you said.

    BRENDAN

    Emily Kostich.

    A beat.

    LAURA’S VOICE

    15 Bush street, up in Stockton Cove. Buzz 42 at the gate. Nine o’clock. But who-

    The dialogue oozes a kind of old-school cool in a huge tip of the fedora to films that made the noir genre what it is. You could easily imagine so many of Brendan’s lines being delivered by Bogart in The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep.

    BRENDAN

    Jake runner, right?

    THE BRAIN

    Big time… maybe. Ask any dope rat where their junk sprang they’ll say they scraped it from that who scored it from this who bought it off so, and after four or five connections the list’ll always end with the Pin. But I’ll becha you got every rat in town together and said ‘show your hands’ if any of them’ve actually seen the Pin, you’d get a crowd of full pockets.

    BRENDAN

    You think the Pin’s just a tale to take whatever heat?

    THE BRAIN

    (shrugs. Beat)

    But what’s first?

    BRENDAN

    A show of hands.

    It’s helped by the fact that every character in the story has their own agenda and the de facto style of interaction is conflict. Though the film isn’t jumping from one action sequence to another, the characters are constantly trying to outwit each other and words are their weapon of choice.

    LAURA

    I want to help you.

    BRENDAN

    Go away.

    Silence behind him. He stops, turns wearily. She looks genuinely hurt.

    BRENDAN (CONT’D) (cont’d)

    Look, I can’t trust you. You ought to be smart enough to know that. I didn’t shake the party up to get your attention, and I’m not heeling you to hook you. Your connections could help me, but the bad baggage they bring could make it zero sum game or even hurt me, so I’m better off coming at it clean.

    LAURA

    I wouldn’t have to lead you in by the hand-

    BRENDAN

    I can’t trust you. Brad was a sap, you weren’t, you were with him and so you were playing him, so you’re a player. With you behind me I’d have to tie one eye up watching both your hands, and I can’t spare it.

    This confrontation and misdirection is of course another hallmark of film noir, and Johnson’s homage to the genre stretches further than just the dialogue.

    Setting the perfect tone for the modern noir

    Dialogue plays a large part in setting the tone for a film, but there’s so much more that Johnson pours into the world of Brick that I love.

    To start with, let’s look at our hero, Brendan. Looking at classic noir films there’s a consistency to the heroes. They’re usually not the strongest, or the fastest or even the smartest. The only thing in which they do excel is tenacity and Brendan has that in spades. The way he fights is a prime example of this:

    Brad tumbles, and Brendan comes up fast, connecting hard with the point of Brad’s chin. Brad gets his balance fast, and before Brendan can throw another he throws one himself, then another, both into Brendan’s stomach. Brendan pulls back and kicks Brad’s shin where he had kicked it before. Brad roars and hits Brendan very hard in the face.

    Brendan bounces back like a rubber ball and throws his weight into a square punch right into Brad’s nose.

    The sound of eggs breaking, and Brad falls backwards like a board.

    He stays down, holding his face.

    Noir worlds are also steeped in cynicism and the characters that inhabit them are nothing if not self-serving, conniving and underhanded. I highlighted a section of dialogue above where Brendan explains why he can’t trust Laura, so later on in the script it might be surprising that he breaks down in front of her.

    BRENDAN

    (croaks)

    Go away.

    Laura floats across the room to him. Her hair falls around him. Brendan shrinks back. She puts a pale hand on his clammy forehead. Brendan tries to speak, but cannot.

    He fingers slide over his face. She pulls off his glasses.

    Her hands all over his face. Brendan’s throat contorts in a hard swallow. His eyes are wet.

    Her hair, her hands all warm and gentle, touching him.

    LAURA

    I’m sorry Brendan.

    Brendan breaks. In silent sobs first, then shivering with an almighty release he cries like a baby in her arms.

    So Brendan finally trusts Laura enough to let down his guard at that point. But it’s a mark of the wonderful perversion of this world that he doesn’t trust that she’s on his side, instead he knows enough to be fairly certain she’s the opposite. Knowing he’s one step ahead of her is what allows him to drop his guard.

    How to handle thin motivation

    As much as I like heaping well deserved praise on Brick, it’s not entirely sunshine and rainbows. While reading through the script one of my biggest stumbling blocks was thin character motivation.

    There are times when characters in the film take actions that seem a little bizarre. But most of these occurrences are well handled, so I think there are good learning points here.

    BRENDAN

    About a year ago I had a small time dealing partnership with Jerr Madison. Know him?

    PIN

    Till he took the fall for you.

    BRENDAN

    Yeah well. I didn’t ask him to, but he was a straight player. I got out clean – almost. Nothing on my official record, but the VPs play it like I owe them one. When I made it clear I wasn’t playing their hound dog, well they didn’t like it. They keep calling me in, badgering me.

    PIN

    Gee that’s tough.

    BRENDAN

    I don’t like being told whose side I’m on. So now they think I’m on your trail, I’m in a nice spot to know their movements and feed them yours.

    PIN

    I gotcha.

    The above fragment shows the entire argument that Brendan makes to convince the Pin, the biggest drug dealer of the neighborhood, to trust him. It’s a pretty thin argument, so the the fact that the Pin then lets Brendan walk out of his house scot-free is a bit weird.

    Johnson handles this by delaying the confirmation of the Pin’s trust in Brendan. The Pin sends Brendan away saying he’ll check his story. Johnson then goes a step further in ramping up the tension by co-opting an earlier subplot into emphasizing the stakes of the Pin’s trust. An unidentified thug comes after Brendan with a knife, and this follows:

    BRENDAN

    Chuck Burns, big lug with hair like a sheepdog.

    THE BRAIN

    (on the phone)

    Yeah I know him, I just can’t pin him to any crowd. He’s definitely not muscle for anyone. He taps the Carrows crowd but doesn’t hang with them. If you’ve got a guess I could check it out-

    BRENDAN

    The Pin. If he’s with the Pin everything’s kablooie and I gotta blow the burgh.

    So I don’t think that weak motivation here is the result of inattention or poor writing. I think Johnson just ran out of space to make these characters any fuller than they are in an already demanding plot. Further evidence that his instincts are on point here is a moment which he wrote into the script, but thought better of including in the final film:

    Brendan and the Pin are silent for a beat, not looking at each other.

    BRENDAN

    So?

    PIN

    So. Tangles.

    A stocky kid in the front seat turns, and reaches into his jacket. For a moment he stays like that, hand in his jacket, eyes on Brendan. Brendan’s face is placid.

    Tangles pulls out an envelope and drops it in Brendan’s lap.

    After first delaying the Pin’s trust in Brendan, then throwing out the misdirection of the knife wielding thug, including this last point would’ve overcooked the tension arc.

    Holding your reader’s attention

    One last thing I want to take from the Brick script and focus on in my own work is paying attention to the fact that real people have to read your scripts. Sure, they are functional documents meant to be turned into a movie, but it doesn’t hurt at all to make them entertaining in their own right.

    There’s a symbol which is used a couple of times in the film and which is very iconic. The first time it’s shown Johnson includes the symbol in the script rather than just describing it. He does this with good reason because it’s one of those things that are easier to understand visually, so including the symbol is a space saver.

    But if space on the page was a primary concern, then the second time the symbol appears in the script it could’ve easily been alluded to with a few words. But Johnson includes it in the script again:

    Brick symbol excerpt full size

    The last time Brendan saw this symbol, it led him to the location of Emily’s corpse, so it has taken on an aspect of menace in this story. Including it in the script again heightens the tension in the scene around it in a great way.

    Another thing worth mentioning is that no matter how entertaining a script may be, it is possible to bog it all down in the strictures of the format. Look at how Johnson formats a series of intercut shots between Brendan stuffed in the trunk of a car, Tugger driving the same car and the area they travel through:

    EXT. STREETS

    Twisty and narrow. The black mustang flies through them at impossible speeds, roaring past like a bullet.

    DARKNESS

    Loud engine noise, jostling, grunting. Then a metallic jangle, some scraping, and a CLINK!

    EXT. REAR OF FAST MOVING MUSTANG – LATE AFTERNOON

    The trunk pops open, revealing Brendan holding a jack rod.

    INT. MOVING MUSTANG – CONTINUOUS

    Tug is putting a tape in the deck, eyes down. Behind him the trunk pops open, then pulls down out of sight just as he looks back up.

    INT. TRUNK OF MOVING MUSTANG

    Brendan holds the trunk about three inches open, just enough to see which street signs pass by. Loud music plays from the car — “Sweet Baby James” by James Taylor.

    The car zooms on.

    BRENDAN’S POV

    Through the ajar trunk. The mustang slides to a stop beside an elaborate wooden mailbox carved as an eagle’s head. Brendan closes the trunk.

    You could spend an age agonizing over the formatting of these cuts, but what I like about the way Johnson has done it is how the sluglines enable him to condense the description and point of view. The action of the characters is tight in the description because the sluglines are doing the work. This keeps the pace clipping along and prevents the reader from losing interest.

    In summation

    My take-aways from the script of Brick are that your character’s dialogue is critical in setting the tone, genres of films all have tropes that can be utilized to great effect,what to do when your character motivation gets thin and how to hang on to your reader’s attention