‘Motherless Brooklyn’ takes a thoughtful approach to the mystery genre

Kaitlin Wong, A&E Editor

Motherless Brooklyn takes it back to the 1950s with its noir style. The crime film is based on Jonathan Lethem’s book of the same name and produced and directed by Edward Norton, and he also stars in it. Despite his many jobs, Norton certainly delivers in this movie; his performance is what brought the movie from good to great. Along with Norton’s performance, every actor’s character portrayal made the movie’s slow but intriguing plot worth it. 

Set in 1957 New York City, the film follows private detective Lionel (Norton), who struggles with Tourette’s syndrome. However, he has a knack for remembering things, which makes him excel as an investigator. One day, his mentor and close friend, Frank Minna, is shot and killed, which leads him into a new investigation into the final case that Frank was working on. The new investigation brings him into the world of New York City politics as well as the neighborhoods of the marginalized.

In the beginning, the movie hits the ground running. It starts off with a chase scene but soon after it slows down. Besides the beginning and the end, most of Motherless Brooklyn moves at a snail’s pace. The mystery is mainly pieced together through dialogue, and it takes patience and focus for the audience to sit through it. Despite this, the plot is intriguing and in its 144-minute runtime, Motherless Brooklyn touches on race, disabilities and corruption in politics in a very thoughtful way. 

Norton’s performance as Lionel was a standout. Motherless Brooklyn did a great job in its portrayal of Tourette’s syndrome. It never felt like Lionel’s Tourette’s syndrome was being sugarcoated or overemphasized. Certain characters respond poorly to it, calling him “freakshow” and repeatedly asking Lionel to stop. On the other hand, some characters accept it and empathize with him. The different responses put Lionel in tough situations, and his reactions characterize him more than him having a disability. Norton portrays this condition very well, in addition, Norton’s genuine portrayal of Lionel’s feelings toward his mentor and the people around him brought heart to the movie. His feelings are what gave Motherless Brooklyn purpose and propelled it forward.

Another standout part of the movie was how well the style of the 1950s was expressed. From the fast-paced bebop jazz in a small Harlem nightclub to the costumes and set pieces, everything on the screen sucked us into this world. The private detectives in the agency are decked out in suspenders and trench coats while the women wore scarves and old-fashioned dresses. However, the element that really nailed the whole feel of the movie was the characters’ dialect, using words like “gumshoe” and utilizing thick New York accents. 

In the slew of superhero movies and rehashed Disney movies that have been circulating, Motherless Brooklyn is a refreshing change of pace. It’s deliberate and thought-provoking about issues in society without being pretentious. The key point of Motherless Brooklyn is how it slows things down and focuses on the people in the story, the part of the story that makes it whole.