Standing outside a movie theater after a screening of Motherless Brooklyn, a woman turned to her friend and sighed. “Can you please explain what the hell just happened?” she asked. “I didn’t follow that at all.”
It’s been every critic’s biggest gripe with Motherless, the '50s-era noir adapted from a 1999 Jonathan Lethem novel that Edward Norton wrote, directed, and stars in. The film tells the story of a private detective with Tourette syndrome investigating the death of his boss, played by Bruce Willis, who's gunned down about 18 minutes into the movie. The Guardian called it “opaque”; Variety wrote that it will “make your brain hurt”; the Hollywood Reporter complained that a “number of scenes are inscrutable in terms of dramatic need or even what’s actually going on.” It’s true that Motherless can be hard to follow. If you aren’t paying close attention, you’re likely to get lost—but if you are, the payoff is huge. Norton’s character uncovers the true story of how corrupt, shady politicians shaped New York City into what it is today—how they drove low-income people of color from their homes, bulldozed their neighborhoods to make way for highways, and brazenly prevented them from enjoying public resources—making the rich richer, the poor poorer, and the powerful almost godlike in the process. Like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential before it, Motherless doesn’t just hand you that information on a plate. You have to work for it—and to Norton, that’s the point.
“I would say convolution and getting lost in the murk is almost an inherent part of the comment of [noir],” he told VICE. “It’s very, very hard to know what’s going on in the shadows because people who are doing bad things, they mask it.”
In Motherless, those people are led by Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin), an unelected official with more power than the Mayor and Governor combined, who runs New York like a puppet master. He’s a transparent stand-in for Robert Moses, the real-life autocrat who ruled over the city in the mid-20th century. (While it’s technically an adaptation of Lethem’s novel, the film feels more closely aligned with Robert Caro’s The Power Broker.) Norton’s gumshoe, Lionel Essrog, doesn’t set out to take Randolph down. All he wants to do is solve the mystery behind his boss’s murder. But as he digs into it, he finds himself increasingly entangled in what Randolph is doing to the city—how he’s transformed himself into a de facto dictator, allowing him to push through racist policies that profit him and his friends wildly—until ultimately, Lionel feels he has to take a stand.
Norton acquired the rights to Motherless Brooklyn in 1999, and the movie has been gestating ever since. There’s a reason it’s finally coming out now.
“It was interesting no matter what,” Norton said. “But post-2016, it started to have second-level echoes, of more intensity than maybe we even were intending.”
Though it’s set in 1957, there are striking parallels between Motherless and our current political moment. The issues it grapples with—abuses of power, discriminatory policymaking, the gulf between the selfish and those who believe in helping out our most vulnerable citizens—dominate our everyday discourse. Randolph has an unmistakably Trumpian quality to him, heightened by the fact that Baldwin plays him. The film poses an important question: When you know powerful people are perpetrating something evil, do you sit around and let it happen, or do you try to push back? It’s a question that Lionel has to answer—and by extension, one that we do, too.
“The detective in noir sort of stands in for all of us in the sense that he’s not an activist, he’s not a crusader on the barricades—he’s a regular person just doing his job and making a buck,” Norton said. “And then the more he looks at what’s going on, the more in the way he gets, until this very American sense of irritation starts to rise up in him despite himself. That’s why people relate to those movies, because that’s all of us. We believe in the freedom of the system, but if we start to feel like someone’s rigging the game too unfairly, we’re going to start to get a little noisy about it.”
For much of Motherless, it’s hard to parse exactly how Randolph and his goons are rigging that game, but puzzling it all out is what propels you through the movie. Like any great noir, it’s not knowing exactly what’s happening next that makes the film work. You just have to be willing to surrender yourself to the mystery, and enjoy the ride.
And there’s a lot to enjoy about Motherless. Norton’s performance is, as per usual, outstanding, and Lionel is a fully formed character—not one we sympathize with because of his Tourette’s, but one we empathize with as a flawed, deeply human protagonist struggling to do the right thing. As the movie rolls on, you find yourself surprised each time some new Hollywood heavyweight appears onscreen: Willem Dafoe, Cherry Jones, Michael K. Williams, Bobby Cannavale, and Leslie Mann all have supporting roles. You’re visually transported back to late-50s New York, thanks to stunning work by cinematographer Dick Pope. And the score—featuring a haunting original song by Thom Yorke, and a handful of arrangements from Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of jazz at Lincoln Center—lends Motherless a dark, moody soundscape, of a piece with how uneasy the film makes you feel. Norton pulls you into another world, one as dark, gritty, and singular as any standout noir you can name. Even when you’re not quite sure where the film is headed, it’s a joy just to exist in that world for a while.
By the time Motherless is over, you might not understand every narrative turn it took, or how each clue Norton left you fits together. You might not entirely comprehend what Lionel uncovered, or the full horror of what Randolph and his associates have wrought on New York. Motherless isn’t an easily digestible history lesson on exactly what Robert Moses did to the city back in the 20th century—and to Norton, that’s how it should be.
“I think what makes something stick is if it activates questions in the brain, as opposed to handing out a reassurance pill, or a certainty pill. If someone says to me, ‘That can’t be right. They can’t really have set overpasses purposefully low to keep minorities away from beaches. That can’t be true,’ and they go and find out it is, that’s a healthy provocation of interest,” Norton said. “If people want to know more, I think that’s a success.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.