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Review: Motherless Brooklyn

November 1, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Set in the 1950s in New York City, Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a private detective with Tourette syndrome. He twitches and tics, his mind obsessing over certain phrases and making him repeat them, only getting reprieve from this when he self-medicates with marijuana and other drugs.

But Lionel also has an incredible ability to retain information and never forgets anything, which makes him a brilliant, meticulous gumshoe. After witnessing his partner and mentor Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) get killed, Lionel becomes obsessed with unraveling the mystery that Frank was trying to solve when he got shot.

This sucks him into a seedy New York underworld involving those in power and the people trying to hold them to account, including an activist, Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is protesting the city’s forced relocation of the poor African-American communities, and a crooked politician named Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

Directed by Norton, who also delivers a compelling and touching performance in the lead, Motherless Brooklyn is a hardboiled detective movie in the most classic sense, rich with crackling dialogue and a tangled web of a plot dealing with political corruption. Adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s bestselling 1999 novel of the same name, Norton’s screenplay touches upon racial discrimination and housing inequality, themes that still feel relevant.

The film is loosely inspired by the true story of Robert Moses, whom Baldwin’s character is based on, the New York City parks commissioner who amassed incredible amounts of power behind the scenes and is said to have controlled every decision made in the city and state from the 1930s to the 1960s. The film’s aesthetic recalls noir classics like Chinatown, and while Motherless Brooklyn does have an intricate, politically charged plot akin to that 1974 film, it’s also somewhat of a mood piece.

One of the centrepiece moments is a haunting and moving sequence set to an original song called “Daily Battles,” a beautiful contribution to the film by Thom Yorke and Flea, showing Lionel falling into a drug-induced dream in order to escape his mind. There is also an instrumental version of the song, arranged for saxophone by Wynton Marsalis, that is worked into Daniel Pemberton’s evocative jazz score for the film and recalls elements of Jerry Goldsmith’s iconic music in Chinatown.

The film does an excellent job of getting inside Lionel’s head. I really enjoyed Norton’s portrayal of how this character’s mind works, and I found his performance as someone navigating both the struggles and blessings of having a brain that works differently from most to be quite moving at times. Because he is always making connections, this makes him adept at seeing patterns where others don’t and finding the clues needed to solve complex mysteries. Norton’s character offers constant voiceover throughout the film charting his progress and thought process, which is written and delivered in a style that recalls the prose-like speech patterns associated with old detective stories.

While Motherless Brooklyn is set in the 1950s, it very much recalls the mature, adult filmmaking of the 1970s, and I found it to be a completely absorbing film to sink into when I saw it at TIFF. Working with cinematographer Dick Pope to give the film a noirish look that is quite often darkly beautiful in its stark composition, Norton has crafted a completely pleasurable cinematic landscape to get lost in for a couple of hours, and fans of classic detective movies are sure to find a lot to like here. I really enjoyed it.

Motherless Brooklyn is now playing in select theatres across Canada.

A version of this review was originally published during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival.

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