Director: Edward Norton
Starring: Edward Norton, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Willem Dafoe
4.00 out of 5.00
By MONTE YAZZIE
A lone New York gumshoe exits the darkness of a side alleyway, a fedora casting a shadow over his eyes as steam rises from a manhole nearby. “Motherless Brooklyn,” directed, acted and written by Edward Norton, tackles the crime film noir genre with aggressive style and impressive performances.
The group of exceptional actors are placed in roles that allow them to flex and chew the scenery in unique ways. It’s a movie that doesn’t often get made in today’s sequel-heavy, superhero influenced atmosphere. The fact that it understands film noir characteristics and narrative themes keeps this film thought-provoking and engaging throughout.
In 1950s New York City, Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), sometimes known as Brooklyn and often self-described as Freakshow, works for a private investigation company run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis).
Lionel is an orphan who grew up rough. Frank protected him when he was younger, keeping others from taking advantage of him.
Lionel has a condition and says his “brain is all messed up,” which is accompanied by physical twitches and involuntary verbal bursts. But being in the investigation business, this condition has an advantage because Lionel has a photographic memory.
Frank arranges a setup with a group of mysterious guys, bringing Lionel and another one of Minna’s Men (Ethan Suplee) along to watch his back. Things go bad and Frank is shot. Lionel must now piece together a scheme of corruption beyond the private sector, and into the realms of New York politics, greed and murder.
“Motherless Brooklyn” is an interesting piece of noir cinema. It feels unusual yet refreshing to see a film like this on the big screen, which is where it should be seen.
Edward Norton wearing the director’s hat, does a great job of combining familiar genre characteristics from crime films of the past. He brings a shadowy and hazy atmosphere to New York City, while also showing the contrasting beauty of the city’s architecture and landscape; both in bright sunlight and the dark of night.
It feels, in very specific moments, like John Alton’s style of noir composition with films like “T-Men” and “He Walked By Night,” with deep shadows and pinpoint lighting style. The cast is an ensemble of great actors who all contribute nicely with characters, some who control the screen with glee.
Take for instance Alec Baldwin, who plays a forceful businessman in a politician’s disguise. Baldwin’s introduction in the film finds him bursting through doors, feet and fist stomping into a celebratory meeting that immediately stops.
Minna’s Men, Bobby Cannavale, Ethan Suplee, and Dallas Roberts, have the fun task of playing the many different versions of noir detectives we’ve seen from the past. The tough guy, the playboy, the family man, each in search of different reasons for being a detective.
Norton’s character is the most complex, the most intricate and the most unlike the standard stereotype found for this character. At one-point Lionel, seemingly shedding his persona to look like something more familiar, picks up a trench coat, fedora and gun holster, putting on the uniform of the determined gumshoe.
Norton is doing so much with the character, consistent twitching and verbal rhyming spells. Done with more flair than vulgarity, the spells become more prominent when he is agitated or, in the one instance, grooving to jazz music in a smoky night club.
The narrative weaves a nice “who-done-it,” but delves into over-explanation too often, with flashbacks that assist the mystery in ways the audience is already keen to. The primary story conflict is that of power, and throughout the film this aspect is what gives the movie its motion, keeping you engaged.
This drives the film until the final act when it shifts into a story about the protection of the past, present and future. It works in pieces.
“Motherless Brooklyn” is inspired by so many great things, “Chinatown,” classic film noir, jazz (the score and accompanying music from an amazing group of artists like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, Wynton Marsalis, Thom Yorke, and a score by Daniel Pemberton) and New York City.
While the narrative encounters a few bumps, the film does a great job of organizing an intricate and interesting noir film.