â€œIt’s duck soup for you yegsâ€
Do you remember the feeling of being in high school – the entrapment of the cliques, the latent frustrations of coming of age, the desire to do something bold and grand that inevitably translated into something dangerous? Watching this debut feature film by writer/director Rian Johnson recalls a little of this claustrophobia, where a person can be defined by something as simple as who they share their lunch with. Yet the only reality in the picture here is the one that resides within our imagination. Johnson’ film is, instead, more closely related to the absurd (and I mean that in the best possible way).
The challenge was to create a detective story that references yet avoids the clichÃ©s of silver screen noir. For a start it is beautifully shot on colour film stock. Gone are the dingy bars, the dark alleys and the police headquarters in favour of a high school setting in Johnson’ home town of San Clemente, located about one hour south of Los Angeles. This is a teen drama that has more in common with Gus Van Sant’s ‘Elephant’, or Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange’ than it does with the OC.
The characters in this story are no ordinary kids. Their language is heavily stylised, reportedly taking its cue from the novels of Dashiell Hammett so there is a level of translation taking place throughout the film, where for example, â€œit’s duck soup for you yegsâ€ means â€œyou guys are easy pickingsâ€. This is one aspect of the film that you’ll either find playful or vexing. The plot is slowly unravelled from the perspective of lead character Brendan (who was perfectly cast with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role). His journey to uncover the truth about the murder of his ex-girlfriend Laura (Nora Zehetner) is fuelled with deception, passion and more than a little drug dealing along the way but the many dark moments are balanced with a firmly planted tongue-in-cheek approach to comic relief.
Looking very much the wiry, bespectacled anti-hero, Brendan is not afraid to front up to whatever thug gets in his way. He cops many a beating, but surprisingly, holds his own too. He’ a straight shooter who’ not afraid to eat his lunch alone. In order to get closer to solving the mystery though he becomes embroiled in a gang with “The Pin’ (Lukas Haas) – a drug dealing ring leader who operates so smoothly in the underbelly that he’ almost an urban myth.
What is delightful about his character is the empathy that develops when the cracks in his villainous veneer begin to show a sensitive little boy hiding beneath. After signing his fate over to the gang (in a basement complete with dÃ©cor befitting a David Lynch set), Brendan surfaces to the kitchen and enjoys milk and cookies with “The Pin’ and his head thug, “Tugger’ (Noah Fleiss). This is one scene that illustrates the effective costume and production design as while “The Pin’ is seated in his black garb, regally clutching a cane with a silly duck-head handle, a fight almost breaks out between “Tugger’ and Brendan. The tension is dissipated perfectly with the humorous use of a random household chicken vase as the impending blunt instrument of pain, all the while “The Pin” mum fusses obliviously in the background.
Not only is this an enjoyable film – worthy of the “Special Jury Prize for Originality of Vision’ received at the Sundance Film Festival – but extraordinary in that it was achieved on a shoestring budget. Watching it on the big screen, you would never suspect that Johnson cut it himself from the intimacy of his bedroom computer. Or maybe it’s precisely his hands-on level of involvement in the film-making process that makes it so well rounded. The final touch is the rich ambient sound design with music produced and composed by Nathan Johnson with the Cinematic Underground. It’s an incredible debut, certain to be followed up with something even better.