Rates: * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? I re-watched ‘Knives OUt’ a few weeks back and wanted to revisit some of Rian Johnson’s earlier stuff.
Californian high school senior Brendan is worried about his ex. After a panicky phone call from her, he realises she has fallen in with some bad kids and gotten herself in trouble; suspicions she denies. A few days later, he is then heartbroken when he finds her body in a local storm sewer, and determines to avenge her death.
Rian Johnson’s entertaining debut feature is a treasure trove for fans of classic film noir, and dime store pulp fiction. Supplanting a story like this to a high school setting works surprisingly well; teenagers are naturally moody and mysterious, they are elusive and cover their tracks, and they communicate in their own made up lingo of invented slang; all classic elements of characters you’d find in a 1930s Hollywood detective yarn.
Johnson’s cast offer some fun takes on classic noir archetypes. Joseph Gordon Levitt is especially good as an underage Sam Spade type, and Lukas Haas is nicely understated as one of his enemies, a criminal overlord who still lives in his mom’s house. These two share one great scene on a beach, where they watch the sunset and then Haas asks Levitt if he likes Tolkien; simultaneously showing that he would actually just like to have a friend, but also indicating that this world of shadey drug deals and double crosses might just be the game he plays now, after he got bored with D and D.
One flaw in the movie is that the female characters are not as well drawn; the femme fatale should be one of the most intriguing players, but here Nora Zehetner doesn’t register much as (the significantly named) Laura. The character is underwritten, and the actress doesn’t bring much to it. The other roles for women, are small.
Otherwise Johnson has a firm grasp of his sources. There are some great anachronistic touches that indicate these characters are all enjoying living in a world that harks back to an earlier time; whether it is Levitt’s preference for pay phones, Haas’s cape and walking stick, or the brainiac who eschews the internet and gets all his info at the library. These are kids who, like the director, have a fondness for era’s past.
Like all of Johnson’s movies, this one is well shot, and comes up with some interesting locations on a low budget. The storm water drain crime scene is an arresting and unsettling location, and the mansion’s that the rich kids live in have a weird, half finished feel, that adds to the elusive tone. Nothing is quite what it seems, which is just as it should be.
A playful and clever debut, that instantly marked the director as one to watch.