I am yet to see a movie where Edward Norton plays as if he’s not even playing. To be precise, I don’t think I’ll ever come across such a movie, because this phenomenal actor is, in my opinion, the best in business. I was stunned watching Norton’s debut performance in Primal Fear (1996) where he outplayed a dinosaur of the cinema Richard Geere. Then in Painted Veil (2006) he was once again impressive in a dramatic role. In The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) Norton demonstrated how much of a versatile actor he was. In Motherless Brooklyn he’s the script writer, producer, and director, so my expectations were very high. I can definitely say that I wasn’t disappointed, but would I 100% recommend it? *suspence intensifies*
Motherless Brooklyn is set in the 1950s New York. In the film, Edward Norton portrays a a lonely private detective Lionel Essrog afflicted with Tourette’s Syndrome ventures to solve the murder of his mentor and only friend Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Frank Minna is the owner of the private detective agency and Lionel works there with three more detectives. Lionel has only several clues and his own enthusiasm and wit to solve the case. He meets a lot of people of various social classes and different districts of New York in his search for the truth.
Setting & Atmosphere
The budget of the film reached a measly amount of 26 million U.S. dollars – this is quite little compared to the movies of today, packed with CGI. One great film that comes to mind with comparably great cinematography and relatively budget is Atomic Blonde (2017), which proved that good films are based on good scripts – not on CGI (looking at you, the new Star Wars, with a mixture of resentment and indifference).
Back to the point: Motherless Brooklyn bets on the setting and atmosphere as well as good acting, which is in my book the best bet. The overall feel of the film is a little tense from the beginning. The city of New York is depicted as cold, yet bursting with life everywhere from the jazz clubs of Harlem to the top political circles. As the plot thickens, the film investigates a vast variety of topics, starting from inequality and discrimination and ending with human understanding and empathy. Motherless Brooklyn is obviously inspired by the noir films of the past.
Around 20min into the film I’ve suddently realized that I was completely consumed by what was going on – I haven’t felt that immersion in a while. The problem with modern cinema is that directors try to grab the audience’s attention in a violent way (e.g. action-packed scenes, quick jokes, short and ‘to the point’ dialogues). Motherless Brooklyn respects his audience and offers a completely different kind of experience – the experience of watching a film that is aesthetically pleasing, steady-paced, intelligent, with attention to detail, and actual care from the production team. It’s very precious.
Cast in this film is absolutely top notch: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, and Cherry Jones. All of them deliver their best performances and the casting couldn’t be more perfect. I won’t praise every actor or spoil the plot for you by telling their exact roles, but I’d still like to point out the absolutely stunning performance of Gugu Mbatha-Raw. In my opinion, in this film she truly shines like never before. She portrays a strong, yet tender woman, and her character is the opposing side of the tough, unfair New York, where politicians are equally neck-deep in crime as gangsters.
This is a film you’ll need to actually listen to. The dialogues are intelligent and smart, while the ideas aren’t just thrown in the audience’s face – they are lightly covered, but still perfectly readable. In my opinion, it’s the dialogues that keep the pace of the movie up and they are also the major strength of Motherless Brooklyn.
I get that heavy dialogue might not be everyone’s cup of tea (the box office of 18.3 million suggests that it’s not), and yet these dialogues help create that atmosphere of tension throughout the film.
Music is the cherry on top, as always, and another piece of puzzle to build the story. It’s worth noting that the song for the film ‘Daily Battles’ was written by the Radiohead singer Thom Yorke and then rearranged by jazz musician Wynton Marsalis to rearrange the song into ballad in the style of 1950s Miles Davis’s music. The composer of the film is Daniel Pemperton famous for music scores for such films as Molly’s Game, All The Money In The World, and Ocean’s 8.
Would I Recommend?
To me, this film was worth the time I’ve spent watching it. It’s obvious that Motherless Brooklyn was made with great care and attention to detail as well as great effort from the cast. It’s a story that explores the issues that aren’t anything new, but it does so through the eyes of a man who is in many ways brilliant, but has to keep fighting his own demons while trying to do the right thing. It’s not a simple story and something to watch casually – Motherless Brooklyn offers great value only if you lend this film your full attention for 144 minutes. If you’re ready to do so, I believe this film won’t disappoint you.
Overall, I’d definitely recommend it, but only if you enjoy steady-paced detectives and dialogues.
My own score for this film would be 8.5/10 – very solid story
I also found it very interesting to learn about the details of filming from a podcast with Edward Norton, but I wouldn’t recommend watching it before the movie itself to avoid minor spoilers.
What are your favorite detective films? Have you watched Motherless Brooklyn and if so, what were your impressions? I’d love to know!
See you in my next post,
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