Edward Norton is an odd duck. When he burst onto the scene with 1996’s “Primal Fear,” he matched beats with more seasoned stars Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Francis McDormand, and earned an Oscar nomination for his trouble. Subsequent roles in “American History X,” “Fight Club” and “25th Hour” led to him being hailed as one of the greatest actors of his generation. Then he became more choosy with his projects, ranging from “The Painted Veil” to “Pride and Glory” to “Moonrise Kingdom,” but was perhaps less prolific than his contemporaries. A third Oscar nomination for “Birdman” demonstrated that Norton was still a major force, and he now steps behind the camera for the first time since his debut, 2000’s “Keeping the Faith.”
Motherless Brooklyn, an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel of the same name, is clearly a labor of love for Norton, who writes, produces and directs as well as starring in this smart and knowing blend of social realism and detective thriller. Motherless Brooklyn recalls earlier urban crime films such as “Serpico” and “To Live and Die in L.A.,” while also providing its own distinctive view on the social structure and hierarchies of 1950s New York. Norton plays Lionel Essrog, a private investigator blessed with an eidetic memory but cursed with Tourette’s Syndrome. Lionel is the prized employee of Frank Minna (Bruce Willis, “Glass”), an experienced detective who has effectively adopted Lionel as well as other orphans Tony Vermonte (Bobby Cannavale, “The Irishman”), Gilbert Coney (Ethan Suplee, “Unstoppable”) and Danny Fantl (Dallas Roberts, “Mayhem”), employing them and using their skills in his detective agency. After a secret meeting as part of a case results in Frank’s death, Lionel resolves to continue the case despite his colleagues’ reluctance and even warnings against doing so. Along the way, he encounters various characters including mysterious ranter Paul (Willem Dafoe, “The Lighthouse”), admin clerk Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, “The Cloverfield Paradox”) and Brooklyn Authority commissioner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”). He also uncovers layers of intrigue, oppression, corruption and violence.
What Lionel does not discover is cliché, which is an area the film constantly flirts with but largely avoids. Central to this understanding and careful handling of the material is Norton’s own performance. Norton is no stranger to playing mentally ill characters, as demonstrated by “Primal Fear,” “Fight Club” and “The Score,” and another actor might have approached Lionel as a performance of weird tics. Instead, Norton expresses Lionel’s condition the way that the character describes it: A head full of broken glass. These shards emerge as uncontrollable outbursts and repetitive acts, characterized as Lionel’s inner voice “Bailey.” Lionel regularly apologizes for “Bailey” and, while there is initial hostility from those who do not know him, they also tell him “It’s alright.” This highlights the importance of what Lionel finds and says, as others are willing to listen to him despite the jagged edges that he projects.
This acceptance of the unusual informs the portrayal of Lionel himself as well as his place in the city, awkward yet belonging. The city is crucial here, the different districts of New York forming the stakes as well as the locations of the drama. Cinematographer Dick Pope shoots the film in cool tones, the characters’ clothes and the buildings cast in a melancholy yet beautiful hue. Deep focus shots capture the buildings in detail, making them significant figures within the visual composition. Lionel’s flashbacks are often overexposed, expressing his simultaneous confusion and clarity with what he sees. Yet he is not the only one who is unusual in one way or another. Baldwin’s Randolph has a distinctive and almost comical walk; Frank’s widow Julia (Leslie Mann, “Blockers”) seems to lack empathy; Dafoe’s Paul is wracked with guilt and anger; Billy Rose (Robert Ray Wisdom, “Live Cargo”) has a damaged arm. Throughout the film, people have something identifiably odd about them — Lionel is simply the most extreme of them. The film’s soundtrack reflects unexpected juxtapositions, as jazz plays across much of the action and crucial events revolve around a Harlem jazz bar, where trumpet playing Michael Kenneth Williams (“Ghostbusters”) proves an unexpected ally for our confused detective.
The paradox of everyday abnormality characterizes the film as a whole. Motherless Brooklyn contains familiar elements of the hard-boiled detective genre, including threatening thugs, distinctive hats and coats and untrustworthy authorities. But these aspects are not over-emphasized, resulting in a film that is best described as par-boiled. There is tough dialogue and a sense of the detective being the sole figure of integrity in the tradition of Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, but these aspects are blended with social realism that stops the film slipping into generic cliché. The enemies that Lionel encounters, while they do commit crimes, are not gangsters in the traditional sense. The corruption that Lionel uncovers is endemic but also intrinsic to the city, as much a part of the urban institution as the voter registration and electoral administration that Laura works with. What fills the function of villainy in the film is committed out of a sense of doing the right thing for the city, driven by visions and indeed realities of urban and social development rather than a lust for power or even material greed.
Baldwin’s performance includes some flowery monologues, but rather than echoing Sidney Greenstreet in “The Maltese Falcon,” Don Corleone in “The Godfather” or Jack Nicholson in “The Departed,” they are more reminiscent of contemporary political figures. The building of new facilities such as bridges, parks and walls is equated with doing good for “the city,” while the people, especially the black inhabitants of Harlem, are swept aside in the relentless drive of “progress.” In doing so, Motherless Brooklyn engages with the extremely contemporary danger of demagogues, highlighting the malevolence of industrial entrepreneurship and urban development. To do so through the perspective of a mentally ill protagonist and an African-American woman makes Motherless Brooklyn a shoutout for the under-represented and under-privileged. The voices of these groups are largely excluded from mainstream discourse, and therefore need to be constantly highlighted. The eventual revelations and confrontations of the film are muted, offering little in the way of triumph or even resolution, which gives the film a downbeat ending. This sobriety also reflects contemporary events, as discoveries about misdeeds or political impropriety seem to make little difference, because these things are part and parcel of the political economy that we live in and that the film dramatizes. Norton’s film is therefore a timely piece of social reflection as well as being an engaging crime drama that balances despondency with a mild but genuine sense of hope for human decency.