It took Edward Norton 20 years to deliver his sophomore feature as a director and it was worth the wait. Motherless Brooklyn is a smart, cautiously paced crime drama with a masterful eye for direction, environment, and character. In adapting Jonathan Lethem’s 1999 novel to 1950s’ New York, Norton makes a film that is both a period piece and a movie of the moment as history repeats itself and divisive politics resurrect battles some thought were won a half-century ago. The film evokes how everything changes and nothing changes over time with its jazz-inflected parable of a gumshoe taking a stand against a pusillanimous developer waging a war of haves versus have nots. Sound familiar?
Spending two decades on the project means that Norton has immersed himself in the world of the story, understanding how its nuances speak to the present as well as to the past. Norton pulls triple duty as director, writer, and actor playing Lionel Essrog, a private investigator with Tourette syndrome. Lionel finds himself on a labyrinthine journey into the underbelly of his beloved New York after his employer and father figure, Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), is ambushed and left for dead by key figures in an investigation. The violent twist implores Lionel to complete the case.
Lionel’s quest opens up into the gentrification of New York’s boroughs and brings him to Laura Rose (Miss Sloane’s Gugu Mbatha-Raw) an activist leading a campaign against the obvious racialized discrimination of neighbourhoods for redevelopment. The culprit spearheading the charge for “cleaning up” areas of the city with prime real estate currently occupied by low-income residents, immigrants, and people of colour is city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), a figure who runs the show for his own gain when the mayor is too weak to serve the people.
Lionel navigates these overlooked corners of the city because he too is an outsider. People don’t know how to react to the outbursts and physical tics brought on by Tourette’s. Norton walks a razor’s edge with his performance as Lionel has bursts of word vomit and convulsive jiggling, which often draws comedic responses from the surrounding characters who don’t understand how to react to Tourette syndrome circa 1950. What could have been a fatal gaffe of political incorrectness is a sharp and empathetic performance that draws upon Lionel’s unavoidable awkwardness without laughing at him. Instead, Norton incorporates the free-flowing rhythms of jazz into his performance. Lionel’s spastic syncopation reveals his thought process and the symptoms of his condition are like a musician’s riffs on the drums or trumpet.
Jazz flows throughout Motherless Brooklyn as the evocative and Oscar-worthy score by Daniel Pemberton evokes a specific time and environment. There aren’t signature tunes to be found in the jazzy riffs that pepper Motherless Brooklyn. The absence of iconic, obvious musical cues adds to the film’s contemporary flavour as past mixes fluidly with present, as does the film’s signature tune “Daily Battles” by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke that drifts throughout the film. Motherless Brooklyn transports audiences to a specific period by making it feel current and of the moment.
The political subtext of the film couldn’t be more relevant, either, as Lionel’s investigation and budding relationship with Laura evokes the return of right-wing populist politics and white supremacy of Trump’s America. Norton’s shrewd casting of Baldwin as the Trump-like Randolph is a brilliant coup that enlivens the character by incorporating the pop culture familiarity and novelty of the actor’s prior work. The dialogue has uncanny parallels to Trump, particularly one of Randolph’s disgusting tirades with unmistakable echoes of the President’s infamous “grab them the pussy” tirade. Any good adaptation speaks to the present and Norton’s second feature displays a masterful grasp for an artist’s ability to engage audiences with the times in which they live.
The film is a perceptive crime drama that evokes the worlds of James Ellroy and Denis Lehane, while Norton’s direction recalls peak-career Eastwood with its attention to detail and nuances of character set atop the backdrop of a major studio genre film. As an actor and director, Norton surrounds himself with a top-notch ensemble cast, with everyone from Mbatha-Raw, Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe relishing the meatier roles, and actors like Cherry Jones, Michael K. Williams, and Bruce Willis delivering memorable work with just a few scenes.
The period details evoke the era, particularly in the well-tailored costumes by Amy Roth and production design by Beth Mickle. Dick Pope’s masterfully moody cinematography creates an atmosphere of film noir mixed with working class sobriety as the neon lights and smoky clouds of jazz clubs celebrate the distinct communities and neighbourhoods that give a city as rich as New York its flavour. Motherless Brooklyn is the kind of grand, beautifully crafted, and relevant film that mature audiences see too rarely these days.
Read our interview with Ed Norton and Gugu Mbatha-Raw here.