Motherless Brooklyn is a neo-noir based on Jonathan Letham’s novel of the same name and a film that Edward Norton has been trying to make for almost twenty years. He took up directing and writing, and returned the plot of his script to the fifties of the last century. Given that he was so passionate about this project, it’s only understandable that Norton set himself the lead role. In the season of franchises and films planned for film awards, a neo-noir like this comes as a real refreshment.
The plot of the film follows Lionel (Norton), a lonely private detective with Tourette’s syndrome, who has only one thing in mind – to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend, Frank Mina (Bruce Willis). Armed with only a few clues, Frank’s old gun and his obsessive mind, Lionel uncovers the closely guarded secrets that guard the fate of all of New York. Solving mysteries takes him from Harlem’s jazz clubs through the slums of Brooklyn to the crystal halls of New York’s powerful. Lionel battles thievery, corruption and the most dangerous man in town to honor his friend and save the woman who could save him…
Lionel indulges in verbal and physical tics because otherwise, according to him, his brain would explode. It is an intriguing vulnerability and his struggle with maladaptive physical outbursts makes him isolated in society, and the criminal world, which we observe through his eyes and ears, perceives him as a freak. Arguably, it’s an intriguing and thoughtful way to give a classic, acceptable film noir some fresh perspective, as it’s interesting to watch how Lionel’s brain works with his obsessions and various external pressures. He has an almost perfect memory for information, and Frank was the only one who treated his condition as a gift and treated him decently as a normal person.
Motherless Brooklyn is ziherically realized, as a product of the time in which it is set, and there is nothing wrong with that. It has the correct pace and dynamics, but I am of the opinion that without the aforementioned specific perspective on the events in the film, it would be just average. Norton chose a simple, straightforward approach to the material, and used the nearly 150-minute running time to apply more and more layers of intrigue. However, the details of the interwoven mystery do not seem to be revealed by our protagonist, but somehow thrown in front of us as a reward for watching the film.
Norton’s directorial work after nineteen years (Keeping The Faith) is interesting on the surface, but does not go deeper into the head of his character, instead placing him in different situations in which he uses his abilities. A lot could be done with a character like this, who sees puzzles where there are none and whose attitude and words get him into trouble. I would go so far as to say that Lionel is not the main character, but one of a series of secondary characters in a story where the focus is on the city of New York itself and the intertwined central mystery related specifically to him, and not to some of the characters.
Traditional noir films relied heavily on their characters, who were unforgettably seductive, eccentric, daring, corrupt or evil. There are a lot of supporting characters in this film – from Moe Randolph (Alec Baldwin), who is willing to move entire neighborhoods to fulfill his construction ideas, to Laura Ross (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who may be the key to connecting Frank’s death and the cleanup. neighborhoods, to Willem Dafoe as an urban planner with morals and ideals. However, at certain moments it is clear that the presence of the actors, and not the characters they play, is the biggest (the only) noticeable element of the acting. Here, the characters are so buried in the details of the mystery that they don’t seem like actual characters, but merely a vehicle to flesh out the details of Norton’s story.
Although the time and place are authentically recreated, I must state that the film does not leave the impression of an atmosphere characteristic of the genre, but everything somehow seems natural. I am of the opinion that the plot in such materials should be secondary to the characteristic moods, characters and their sense of helplessness against the powerful, but this is not the case here. Maybe it’s because of too many events that might seem out of the ordinary in a typical genre film, or because of the form of storytelling that is partially defined by such a plot. Because of all this, Lionel is not a hero who saved the world, but only a man who managed to understand it.