Underrated Film of The Week: Motherless Brooklyn
This week, we’re putting the spotlight on films that deserve more recognition. Matthew Bowden tells us all about Motherless Brooklyn and why it really should be appreciated more.
It would be understating it to say Edward Norton isn’t the most popular figure within Hollywood, being notoriously difficult to work with and self-serving on multiple film productions. Because of this, it’s easy to pigeonhole Motherless Brooklyn as a vanity project, having been written and directed by Norton himself (as well as casting himself in the leading role). He plays a private detective with Tourette’s syndrome attempting to solve the murder of his mentor amongst a web of corruption and institutional racism in New York. The film’s supposed self-indulgence was one of the main criticisms contributing to its fairly lukewarm reception upon the first release, but this reading does it a major disservice.
…Contrary to a lot of popular critical opinion, it didn’t feel like he was excessively dominating the film.
Knowing someone who suffers from Tourette’s, I think critics significantly overlooked the accuracy and skill of how Norton depicts the little everyday tics and mannerisms of the syndrome. The consistency of his performance is also remarkable considering how much of the 140-minute runtime he has on screen, yet contrary to a lot of popular critical opinion, it didn’t feel like he was excessively dominating the film. It manages to tell a complex narrative which incorporates many different characters, from Alec Baldwin’s menacing turn as the antagonist Mo Randolph, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s typically authentic performance as a young activist whose involvement in the wider situation grows incrementally before your eyes.
What really sold the film to me though was the feeling that there was nothing quite like it in cinemas at the time I saw it, and this comes down to the strength of the atmosphere. Norton altered his screenplay from the novel’s contemporary 90s setting to a more 50s gumshoe style, with the intention of playing up the hardboiled noir elements of the detective narrative. His success in executing this comes down to the notion that I couldn’t imagine these characters or this story taking place in any other environment, showing how it achieves the perfect balance of being engrossing but not overbearing. Again, there’s other aspects that don’t get enough praise – the film is a treat aesthetically, largely due to the brilliant production design, and the soundtrack is a euphonic concoction of jazz, bebop and Thom Yorke’s melancholy Daily Battles which settles you comfortably into the time-period. I came out of the cinema wanting to be in 1950s Brooklyn, which is impressive considering it how gritty most of it is shown to be.