VOD film review: Motherless Brooklyn
James R | On 25, Nov 2020
Director: Edward Norton
Cast: Edward Norton, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bruce Willis
“Frank always used to say, ‘Tell your story walking, pal.'” That’s Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton) at the start of Motherless Brooklyn, a film that tells its story while treading firmly in the footprints of many a film noir gone before. Lionel is an eccentric sort, a green gumshoe with a form of Tourette’s, which means he’s prone to half-yelping phrases out loud at inopportune moments. It’s surprising, then, that the story that forms around him isn’t more unconventional, but you suspect that’s exactly the point.
Lionel finds himself staring down the barrel of a city-wide conspiracy when his mentor, Frank (Bruce Willis), dies and he suspects foul play – fouler than usual. And so he starts to ask questions and dig up secrets in New York’s shadiest corners. All that asking, and all that digging, puts him head to head with an unpleasant political (Alec Baldwin), a mysterious vagabond (Willem Dafoe) who knows more than he lets on, and a social activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
The answers, and the dirt that emerges, won’t surprise anyone who’s seen Chinatown, The Big Sleep or any other gumshoe classic, but Edward Norton’s adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel is explicit about its influences and ambitions. Rather than bring the book straight to the screen, he takes its lead character and goes off in his own direction, relocating events from 1999 to 1950s New York, and steeping the whole thing in period cool. Filming the metropolis in muddy browns and concrete greys, it’s a hugely atmospheric slice of history.
Norton more than looks the part and even though his committed presence occasionally risks turning into Acting with a capital “a”, he’s a joy to watch stroll through this gorgeously stylised world. And what a lot of strolling he does, traipsing from libraries and police stations to shady neighbourhoods and – in some of the movie’s best sequences – a jazz club. That procedural approach is nicely observed, and Norton’s script finds pleasure in the tiny details and patient breaking of a case – the kind of old-school approach to pacing and plotting that will frustrate modern audience as much as it will endear itself to those on its wavelength. Accompanied by a dissonant jazz score by the always-ingenious Daniel Pemberton – with contributions from Thom Yorke and Wynton Marsalis – the result is a deliberately nostalgic neo-noir, which tells its story walking, even if that walking doesn’t necessarily end up somewhere new.