Over the years I have always found myself intrigued by those people in Hollywood whose careers seem to go through weird unexplained ups and downs. Two examples are Keanu Reeves and Ethan Hawke – both actors were at the top their game and then suddenly just seemed to have a string of straight-to-DVD movies, some of which were so good that you couldn’t help but wonder why they never received the cinema release they so deserved.
Another that should be on that list is Edward Norton as a filmmaker. Flashback twenty years ago and on the hunch of a friend I watched a movie with one of the weirdest synopsis of all time. The film was called Keeping The Faith and featured Ben Stiller as a Rabbi and Norton as a Priest, they then both fall in love with the same woman played by then television darling Jenna Elfman. It was an interesting enough film, but was also the only film that Norton had directed right up to this year. That is surprising when you consider that as a filmmaker his debut film was a success and that he has actuallu been linked to a number of other films over the years. Now twenty years later Norton helms Motherless Brooklyn, one of the most criminally under-rated films of 2020.
Based on a novel by Jonathan Lethem (which is now on my must read list) Motherless Brooklyn is set in 1950s New York and follows the story of a lonely Private Detective suffering from Tourettes named Lionel Essrog (Norton – Hulk). When his boss Frank Minna (Bruce Willis – Signs) is killed Lionel decides to take over his case and soon finds himself lost in a world of crime, underground jazz clubs and politics.
For me to give away too much of the plot of Motherless Brooklyn would be criminal. All I will say is that it is a film that contains all the elements that a great noir Detective story should have. Intrigue, suspense, a plot with twists and turns at every point and of course the Femme Fatale that you are never really sure can be trusted or not – here beautifully played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle).
What won me over with this film though is the brilliant plot and an amazing performance by Norton and the cast around him. I love a film that I can’t predict the twists and turns of and that is certainly the case here. As characters like Paul (Willem Dafoe – Spider-Man) and Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin – The Departed) come into Lionel’s world it is impossible to tell who is telling the truth and who is lying.
I’ll be honest there were times that Motherless Brooklyn had me on the edge of my seat. It felt like Norton may have grown up on the same dose of Humphrey Bogart movies I did as he is the kind of director that has learnt that you don’t a huge action sequence to raise suspense, he can skilfully achieve that same intensity from tipping the audience off to the fact that a character is being untruthful or is concealing a weapon. For me there were times when this was almost heart-in-mouth kind of stuff and that is one of the reasons why this film will stay with me for a long time.
I can only describe this film as the perfect noir thriller. I was stunned at Norton’s brilliant, but reined in performance in which he manages to juggle Tourettes’ ticks with strong suspenseful scenes alongside some of the Hollywood’s elite. Given that he juggles that with directional duties on a film that explores topics as diverse as interracial relationships during the 1950s and Government corruption and I can only concur that Norton is one of the best filmmakers Hollywood has right now.
Very few films have ever made me feel like I wanted to turn around and walk straight back into the cinema to watch it again – but that is exactly how Motherless Brooklyn made me feel. This is a beautiful suspense film that showcases some of Hollywood’s best acting talents while never losing its unique noir feeling.