Edward Norton is primarily known as one of the better actors working today, but his passion for artistic expression does not simply stop there. Way back in 2000, he made his feature directorial debut with the charming romantic comedy Keeping the Faith, but in the intervening years he has not returned to the director’s chair. Over twenty years later, he has finally completed a long-time passion project of his; an adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s novel Motherless Brooklyn, which he optioned in 1998. While the novel takes place in a modern 1999, Norton has envisioned the story as a 1950s hardboiled detective film. Anyone who knows anything about Norton as a creative force knows that he has a very strong vision. While this film failed to gain traction at the box office, it is a lovingly crafted throwback to the classic film noirs of decades past.
Motherless Brooklyn is the story of Lionel Essrog (Edward Norton), a private investigator working at a detective agency run by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis). Lionel has Tourette syndrome, which often keeps people at a distance, but has a strong verbal and photographic memory that makes him the ideal detective. The initial effect of Norton’s Tourette outburst is jarring, and a bit comical, but he plays Lionel with such conviction that you quickly acclimate and really begin to care for the character. One day, Lionel is working a secretive case with Frank that goes sideways and leaves Frank pushing up daisies. Frank was like a father to Lionel and his coworkers, and they are determined to get to the bottom of what was so important that Frank had to die. Most of the few leads they have bring about violence intended to dissuade further investigation, but Lionel is hooked once he is led to Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha Raw), an African American woman fighting urban renewal projects that are decimating minority communities. Lionel is drawn to Laura and the mystery surrounding her importance in the investigation. Has she gotten herself mixed up in a power struggle outside of her depth, or is there something else that makes her so valuable?
As with any great detective story, there are many twists and turns that are unveiled at a very deliberate pace as a reward for patient audience members. There are MacGuffins that keep the characters finding new layers to the story and the audience continually guessing. The winding story goes from high-power world of politics with city commissioner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and his vocal adversary, Paul (Willem Dafoe), to the smoky jazz club of Laura’s father, Billy (Robert Wisdom), and his all-star trumpet player (Michael K. Williams). The intertwined connection between these two worlds is compelling, made all the more so by the incredible array of New York actors Norton has assembled. Veteran character actors Cherry Jones and Bobby Cannavale show up and steal every scene in which they appear. Baldwin is tapping into his Glengarry Glen Ross viciousness that makes him such a menacing figure, and Dafoe is delivering large swaths of complicated dialogue with such ease that you are utterly transfixed. Gugu Mbatha Raw plays the delicate balance of strong and vulnerable so well that you are left knowing that she is going to be a huge star one day.
Motherless Brooklyn is an investment at nearly two and a half hours in length. The revelations are compelling while remaining grounded, but the film is more so focused on being an atmospheric character study. The movie could have been streamlined a little bit more in certain places, but the time spent with these characters is enjoyable enough that it is not a major complaint. Norton does a truly impressive job of recreating 1950s New York using a mixture of on-location shooting in New York along with some help from technology. The attention to detail with the production design and even the way he framed certain shots pays off. It is not very often these days that an epic detective story gets made by a major studio, but when Norton got his shot, he poured his heart into the picture. Those who are willing to go along for the ride will find a supremely effective modern noir.
Motherless Brooklyn comes to Blu-Ray with a satisfying 1080p transfer that showcases the marvelous production design accomplished in the film. There are a lot of subtle details in the background of the film that are easily viewable here. The skin tones look natural even with the subdued color palette, and black levels hold up very well with only slight instances of banding. There are not very many instances of bold splashes of color, but when it does pop up, such as in neon, it pops off the screen. The picture is very clear throughout with no compression artifacts present. This is a gorgeous looking transfer that represents the film well.
The Blu-Ray disc comes with a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that conjures a very specific mood that transports you back to this era in history. The haunting original song from Thom Yorke, “Daily Battles”, is one of the best things to come from the movie in its various different versions. This, along with the luscious score from Daniel Pemberton, is showcased beautifully here with a gently enveloping use of the surround speakers. The gum-shoe dialogue flies fast between characters, but everything comes through crystal clear without ever being overpowered by the sound effects or the score. The sound design is just as precisely thought-out as the on screen visuals with all of the sounds positioned just right in the mix. This is a surprisingly active track that does the movie justice.
- Audio Commentary: A very informative track with director and star Edward Norton in which he discusses some very technical shooting details along with overall inspiration from various artists and films. Edward is very passionate about this project and is a wealth of information.
- Making Of – Edward Norton’s Methodical Process: A ten-minute look at the development and construction of the movie with a strong focus on Edward as the driving force. There are discussions about taking the novel and making it a period piece, and most of the main cast give their impression of working with someone as creative and passionate as Norton.
- Deleted Scenes: Five-minutes of deleted scenes are provided that mostly consist of small sequences that show action that was conveyed effectively through words in the film. These scenes include some more surveillance and conversations that spell certain relationships out more. A few of the shots have unfinished special effects.
Motherless Brooklyn is put together with such care and attention to detail that you cannot help but be drawn into its world. This film is an actor’s showcase complemented by a smart, dense script filled with a labyrinth of twists and turns. Fans of detective movies or film noir should find a lot to love here. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has provided a beautiful A/V presentation and some interesting extras. Calm your brain down and ease into the hypnotic journey this movie takes you on. Recommended
Motherless Brooklyn is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.