Directed and adapted for the screen by Edward Norton, Motherless Brooklyn tells the story of Lionel Essrog (Norton), a Brooklyn detective in post-war New York. Working with street smart private investigator Frank Minna (Bruce Willis), Lionel (who also goes by the name Brooklyn) and his team uncover the truth for hire. However, when Minna is shot and left for dead, Lionel determines to unravel the mystery, plunging him into a Brooklyn underworld riddled with crime, corruption and colourful characters. As his quest for truth leads him further up New York’s ladder of power, Lionel’s investigation is complicated by his Tourette syndrome, which leaves him prone to compulsive behavioural tics and inappropriate verbal outbursts.
Adapted from the 1999 novel of the same name, Brooklynis a tightly written throwback film to classic Hollywood’s noir films like The Big Sleep or Chinatown. With a stellar cast and tightly written script, Norton creates a world which feels both foreign and familiar. While the film transports the audience back to 1950s New York, it also feels current in today’s culture, highlighting racial tensions and the growing divide between the upper and lower classes. In Motherless Brooklyn, power is a drug that gives people the freedom to ‘do whatever they want, whenever they want’ but it’s also short in supply. Divided by racial and financial lines, Brooklyn is a city on the brink of chaos.Those that have little power are struggling to make their voices heard while those who have much fight ferociously to maintain it.
As Brooklyn himself, Norton’s performance is sharp, engaging, and loving. At the same time, the character becomes a metaphor for the town for which he’s named. Plagued by Tourette Syndrome, Brooklyn feels as though there’s a chaos in his mind that bubbles over and has to be released. While the casual passerby may not immediately notice Brooklyn’s struggle, his mental chaos inevitably reveals itself. With this in mind, the film clearly draws a line between his character and the city itself, as its own unseen chaos can’t help but overflow from the underground. Diffused lighting and growing shadows point to tension between light and darkness, as Brooklyn (the character) attempts to uncover the truth about Brooklyn (the city). Like his compulsion to pull on the threads of his sweater, Brooklyn also must unravel the web of deception until the facts about his city is revealed.
Furthermore, the film also does not shy away from engaging in the complexities of Brooklyn’s mental health issues. Bullied as a child for his affliction, Brooklyn has always been the one that was pitied by others. After Minna’s death, Brooklyn becomes seen by others primarily for his mental affliction as they constantly try to ‘look out’ for him, rationalizing that he needs their protection. Frustrated by his inability to control his mind and constantly reminded of the burden he is by others, Brooklyn remains ashamed and embarrassed by his behaviour.
Conversely, however, while clearly struggling with his mental illness, he also recognizes its value. Despite the chaos within him, his Tourettes is also what makes him a great detective by forcing him to ‘pull on the thread’ of truth and allowing him to retain incredible amounts of information. What’s more, the film even paints a portrait of Tourette syndrome with an element of beauty by highlighting the musical aspect of Brooklyn’s mental chaos. (For example, this comparison is highlighted when, in one particularly poignant scene, Brooklyn’s inadvertent vocables cause him to become a participant in a jazz ensemble.)
Featuring strong performances and well-written script, Motherless Brooklyn is an entertaining and engaging return to the noir genre. Under the Norton’s direction, the film is also impressive visually, as the shadows and darkness of New York’s underworld are constantly warring against the light of truth.
Motherless Brooklyn unravels the mystery in theatres on November 1st, 2019.