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Motherless Brooklyn—a feast for film noir fans old and new

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Edward Norton’s new film is an ode to past classics that also takes a fresh look at the inequality and corruption of today, says Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2682
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn

Director Edward Norton’s Motherless Brooklyn brings back the best of film noir detectives to dig through the dirt of modern society.

His film has got the whole package—moody urban settings, gangster-politicians, sharp dialogues and sharp suits and hats. At times it feels like one big ode to the classic, The Maltese Falcon.

But it does more than just revel in the film noir aesthetic.

Motherless Brooklyn follows Lionel (Norton), a private investigator who uncovers a world of corruption as he tries to find out who killed his boss and friend.

Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) was onto “something big”—and even his colleagues don’t quite know what.

Lionel’s tourettes, sensitively played by Norton, means he feels an outsider. The deeper he digs, the more complex the web of intrigue between politicians, housing developers and the community organisers fighting back.

At times this can make the story harder to follow, but the fast pace helps to tie together the subplots.

The film is based on a lesser-known novel of the same name by Jonathan Lethem. While the novel is based in the 1990s, Norton transplants the story to 1950s New York.

But it’s meant to be about today, which Norton sees as a “world of bullies and racists”. While it uses history to interrogate the present, the film has an updated feel.

The “femme fatal” trope, for instance, is turned on its head by Gugu Mbatha-Raw who portrays lawyer Laura Rose.

When the mystery is tied together, there’s a verbal showdown between Lionel and politician building magnate Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin).

Baldwin’s speech is like a candid monologue to the audience from a Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein about the exercise of power and unequal relationships.

As well as being about today, the film takes a swipe at the past.

In the 1940s film noir reflected a growing radicalism that was critical of US institutions. Much of that changed during McCarthyism—a series of witchhunts in the 1950s targeting the left.

Motherless Brooklyn’s world shows a deeply divided and racist society in the shadows of the American Dream.

Norton has made a feast for those old and new to noir.

Motherless Brooklyn is out from 6 December

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