‘Motherless Brooklyn’ Movie Review: Edward Norton Directs a Throwback Mystery

Motherless Brooklyn is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore. They literally don’t make period piece mysteries where an investigator unravels a local conspiracy. They used to make them a lot, but back then they were modern day mysteries. Edward Norton crafted Motherless Brooklyn as a throwback to that genre with enough modern flourishes to hopefully sell a new audience on it. 

The players of ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

Lionel (Norton) has Tourette’s like tics and outbursts, along with an obsessive mind for detail. He works for private eye Frank Minna (Bruce Willis) who enjoys throwing Lionel tangents because he knows Lionel will focus when he needs to. As the trailers revealed, Willis is pretty much a cameo in Motherless Brooklyn, so most of the movie is about Lionel figuring out what happened and why.

Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn | Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Lionel follows leads to a city council meeting in which Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) is spearheading development that will displace the locals. Lionel cozies up to outspoken activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and cantankerous rabble rouser Paul (Willem Dafoe). Lionel ends up in a jazz club at one point where trumpeteer (Michael K. Williams) and war veteran also factor in. 

Willem Dafoe in Motherless Brooklyn
Willem Dafoe in Motherless Brooklyn | Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Three other P.I.s (Ethan Suplee, Bobby Cannavale and Dallas Roberts) work in Frank’s office with Lionel. It’s clear these are professionals who know each other and have history long before we met them. The others call Lionel “Freak Show” which is okay sometimes but not in the aftermath of a tragedy. That dynamic grounds the audience in the world of Motherless Brooklyn.

Edward Norton plays a gumshoe battling himself

Lionel is a different sort of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He’s just as hard boiled, but he’s frustrated by his own compulsions. They’re just an added problem for him to navigate while he’s trying to solve a mystery. It’s actually empowering to show that Lionel is just as capable as the pantheon of movie detectives. He gets beaten up as much as they did too.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Edward Norton in Motherless Brooklyn | Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Lionel explains his condition to put people at ease. They didn’t have a diagnosis back then, but he functions with it. Most people are compassionate because Lionel is honest with them, even antagonists he’s questioning. 

The clues of ‘Motherless Brooklyn’

Motherless Brooklyn is a suspenseful mystery. The dialogue is crackling as Lionel penetrates a series of suspects at a brisk pace. No one is straight forward but everyone is true to their own character and motivations. 

Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe
Edward Norton and Willem Dafoe in Motherless Brooklyn | Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Moments of danger ratched up suspense too. In the opening conflict with Frank, Norton directs a chase where you know Lionel needs to follow Frank, but traffic and parallel parkers stand in his way. Not to mention, old timey cars are far less maneuverable. Other such suspense set pieces crop up periodically throughout Motherless Brooklyn.

L-R: Bruce Willis, Edward Norton and Ethan Suplee in Motherless Brooklyn | Glen Wilson/Warner Bros. Entertainment

Motherless Brooklyn transports the viewer back in time with a compelling mystery involving city politics and the racial divide. It’s specific enough that it feels unique to Brooklyn of the era, but of course there are political gentrifications everywhere throughout time. So Motherless Brooklyn is both specific and universal. Most importantly, it reclaims the cinematic value of a good mystery with an ensemble cast of intriguing characters.