Motherless Brooklyn Review: A Gorgeous Film Noir Masterpiece Has Arrived

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It’s been 20 years since Edward Norton has directed a film, with 1999’s Keeping The Faith previously acting as his sole directing credit. In the interim, another idea had grabbed hold of his mind, and it never let go: a film adaptation of author Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn. Now, after a long and hard-fought road, Norton’s period piece version of this originally contemporary detective story is finally being released into the world, and it’s about damned time.

Motherless Brooklyn sees Edward Norton pulling triple duty, as he wrote and directed the film, as well as starred as its main protagonist, Lionel Essrog. A private investigator working in a stable of fellow gumshoes under the watchful eye of their boss, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), Lionel embarks on an investigation more personal than any he’s ever undertaken, as Frank is killed in the middle of an important case, leaving his associates to pick up the pieces.

Navigating the streets of 1950s Brooklyn, as well as the pathways of his own Tourette’s afflicted mind, Essrog’s skills are put to the test as a pattern seems to emerge that connects a local property magnate (Alec Baldwin), a mysterious engineer (Willem Dafoe) and a city clerk (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in a dangerous web of mystery.

Motherless Brooklyn is a film noir masterpiece, full stop. Nobody makes movies like these anymore, at least not a version as pure and accurate as Edward Norton’s script and direction allow. Every piece of this story resonates in authenticity; from Amy Roth’s costume design to the lush production design of Beth Mickle, the look and feel of ’50s New York shines through, with cinematographer Dick Pope’s eye for detail drinking in every frame for posterity.

Combined with the entrancing jazz score composed by Daniel Pemberton, this isn’t so much a movie as a window opened up to another place and time. That’s not enough though, as the world of dialogue in a film like Motherless Brooklyn is equally important, as those who would attempt to use the lingo of the times most often do so in a fashion that doesn’t sound right.

In the wrong hands, every other word is dame, and the interior monologue narrating the picture sounds too knowing and way too assured. And yet, Edward Norton knows exactly which beats to hit in his script and direction, especially in depicting Lionel’s bouts of Tourette’s that are peppered through the film.

Instead of using this as a quick shorthand to endear the viewer to his character, Norton lets Lionel’s disorder add a facet to his life, rather than play to cheap sympathy. The interior monologue he’s given throughout the film helps us see the character’s personality as clear as day, with his condition sometimes adding well-timed humor and depth to the proceedings.

Knowing how to get the right reads out of himself, as well as his ensemble cast, Norton’s work on Motherless Brooklyn hits it out of the park when it comes to his intention to make a film similar to the classic detective stories of old. What could be the crowning jewel of this film’s extensive gallery of character interactions is the collection of moments where Norton’s Lionel interacts with Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Laura, a person of interest in his investigation.

That relationship is something that sets Motherless Brooklyn apart from a classic film noir in a pretty dramatic fashion. Laura’s character isn’t a femme fatale sent to throw Lionel off the scent, she’s someone that’s an unwitting piece in the greater game that’s going on. As he struggles to figure out where she fits in, Lionel actually tries to protect her while still doing his job, and the screen time between these two characters is something to behold.

It’s one part of the very modern sensibility included in what Motherless Brooklyn has to say, which meshes organically within the period elements that its writer/director decided to use in telling its tale. Rather than being an imitation of a genre, thinly veiling a political message for today’s world, Edward Norton hides his intent in plain sight.

Using real New York history as an inspiration, he’s created a film that’s part murder mystery and part historical dissection, charging Motherless Brooklyn with a sort of activism that’s also enjoyable as a straightforward piece of entertainment.

What’s more, the actual mystery painting the world of Motherless Brooklyn its forlorn shades of inquisitive works rather well. The clues are all laid out in a brilliant fashion, leading the audience down the right path to either solve it ahead of time,or just enjoy the ride and make sense of the solution at the end. Even with all of those crucial elements, there are some pieces that make for rather interesting complications, twisting the narrative even further for some added fun.

With a killer instinct for what makes detective sagas work, Edward Norton, his cast and his crew have delivered one of this year’s best films in Motherless Brooklyn. It’s a story about life in the margins, when history is about to turn the page into something big. It’s also a piece of detective fiction that, while maintaining the typical hard-nosed energy about it, values the sensitivity and humanity of its characters. A gorgeous triumph of art and a noble vision of story, this is a rare and hypnotic film that most thought was lost to the world. Then again, as any good detective will tell you, it’s amazing what you can find if you know where to look.

10 / 10 stars

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