FILM REVIEW – MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. With Edward Norton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe, Alec Baldwin, Bruce Willis. Written and directed by Edward Norton. Rated R for language throughout including some sexual references, brief drug use, and violence. 144 minutes.
Anyone who counts such movies as “Chinatown” (1974) and “L.A. Confidential” (1997) among their favorites will want to put MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN at the top of their “must see” list. Triple-threat Edward Norton stars, directs, and adapts Jonathan Lethem’s novel, making an improbable hero credible as the story plays out in 1950s Brooklyn.
Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) works for private detective Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) who recognizes his talents despite his tics and outbursts from Tourette’s Syndrome, which he describes as having an anarchist take over part of his brain. When Minna is gunned down near the start of the film, Lionel pursues leads that might reveal who did it and why.
It’s a complex plot, revolving around Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), whose control over the construction of highways, bridges, and parks makes him a powerful force in the city. Patterned on the real life Robert Moses, he is ruthless in pursuing his goals which he believes are noble: build the infrastructure that will serve the city into the future. If that means the displacement of people currently living where he wants to build, so be it.
The mystery soon brings in other players, including Paul (Willem Dafoe), a critic of Randolph who is harboring a few secrets of his own, and Laura (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose work for a non-profit opposing Randolph’s latest project proves to be complicated as well. In classic noir style we follow Lionel, who has to apologize for his unexpected behaviors even as he’s quietly putting the puzzle pieces together. Norton knows the genre, even giving a nod to “Chinatown” by having his character having to wear a small bandage after a brutal beating, much as Jack Nicholson’s J. J. Gittes had his nose taped after a similar encounter.
What’s impressive is that in only his second film as director, after 2000’s “Keeping the Faith,” Norton shows himself to be as impressive behind the camera as he often is in front of it. Somehow, he also was able to carry the film as the investigator whose condition leads others to underestimate him. Mbatha-Raw more than holds her own as a young African American woman who relates to Lionel because she has been marginalized herself. Norton has also been able to attract a strong supporting cast including Willis, Bobby Canavale, Fisher Stevens, Dallas Roberts, Cherry Jones, and Michael Kenneth Williams.
One of the hallmarks of film noir is its visual style, and Norton proves to have an eye for both the big picture and the small detail, with both in evidence in a key scene in Randolph’s office. Indeed, look for art director Michael Ahern and his team to be major Oscar contenders for their recreation of 1950s Brooklyn which is so credible you might think Norton simply took his crew back in a time machine. Mention should also be made of an outstanding jazz score by Daniel Pemberton, a film composer whose already successful career should receive a major boost from his work here.
For the next several weeks there will be a number of releases that are a.) prestigious, b.) over two hours long, and c.) intended for award consideration. “Motherless Brooklyn” ought to be in the running and, regardless, prove to be a modern landmark in the genre.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.