“We’re taught Lord Acton’s axiom: all power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. ... What I believe is always true about power is that power always reveals. When you have enough power to do what you always wanted to do, then you see what the guy always wanted to do.” —Robert Caro, The Years of Lyndon Johnson
Edward Norton hasn’t been completely absent from the silver screen, but he’s mostly only been appearing on the margins, as a cameo villain or a voice. As it turns out, he’s been spending the last several years going for the moviemaking auteur’s triple crown of writing, directing and starring in his own feature. Now that Motherless Brooklyn is out, we’ve got a better look at what’s important to Norton.
As Paste’s review mentioned, that adds up to a competent and at times very fun noir homage. A lot of what it does is standard-issue noir, from the hard-boiled patter and the damsel in distress to the presumption that its flawed, cynical hero can’t truly win in a rotten world. What’s noteworthy is who the villains are, what that villainy actually is, and who it actually hurts
Like the villains of his film, Norton tears down what he can’t use in adapting the book. Norton dumps the 1990s setting of the novel, transplanting the story to the 1950s and peopling it with the same kind of damaged post-war heavies you find in any Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler story. Norton plays Lionel, “Brooklyn” to his fellow gumshoes and “Bailey” to the malicious voice lurking about in his head. He’s got Tourette’s Syndrome, the universally played-for-laughs neurological condition which can cause a person to spout random gibberish. The movie treats it as an actual, serious affliction that severely affects Brooklyn’s life.
Brooklyn and his fellow PIs all work under the direction of Frank Minna, a typically grizzled Bruce Willis. When he tries to bargain for a piece of blackmail above his pay grade, Minna is killed and Brooklyn and his hapless comrades are left to try to figure out what it all means without their wise old leader’s guidance. Determined to do right by the man who saved him from an orphanage and saw value in his strangeness, Brooklyn hits the mean streets of New York to solve the case.
What he discovers is a conspiracy by the city’s shadowy power broker Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin, in a role that fits him entirely too well) to seize black neighborhoods and turn them into parks built by construction firms that pay him kickbacks. But when Brooklyn discovers Randolph is targeting a young community activist (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the detective suspects there’s more to it than merely removing another inconvenient do-gooder.
The biggest liberty Norton takes with the material is not with the time shift but with how that time shift changes the political landscape. Baldwin’s Moses Randolph is a character pretty clearly based off of Robert Moses, a big shot in New York City politics credited with setting the standard of urban renewal throughout the United States during his time as head of various public commissions.
Robert Caro’s 1974 book The Power Broker goes into Moses’ reign as grand architect of 20th century New York in great detail, including how it privileged highways over neighborhoods and ran largely without public accountability due to the fact Moses never once had to answer to an electorate to receive any of his appointed positions. It was the cleverness of guys like Moses that made bridge clearances just a bit too short for buses—which lower class (minority) people tend to ride more often. He probably had plenty of Manhattan power lunches with guys who masterminded insurance redlining. Those shady dealings are basically taken straight from Caro’s book and mapped onto Baldwin’s character.
Brooklyn learns all of these corrupt revelations through conspicuous info dumps from Randolph’s outcast brother (Willem Dafoe), but the bigger discovery is actually that Mbatha-Raw’s character, Laura, is actually Baldwin’s illegitimate daughter, the unwitting result of rape.
One of the weaknesses of Motherless Brooklyn (besides the fact it’s trying to convey a lot of info through mouthpieces like Dafoe), is that you can see that kind of twist coming. One of its strengths, besides Norton’s assured performance, is how it ties in Randolph’s corrupt dealings with his more intimate violence.
Finally cornered and forced to deal with Brooklyn, Randolph reveals that of course he raped a lowly hospitality worker, why wouldn’t he do that when he has all the power in the world? (And besides, he adds, she could’ve left her poorly paid shit job where she regularly got raped any time if she didn’t like it!)
For his own part, Norton has said that Baldwin’s character was not based on Trump, as he completed the screenplay in 2012, but the comparison is unavoidable in light of Baldwin’s far-too-good take on the man, and in scenes where he pontificates to fellow blue bloods about what and who make America great. It’s unavoidable at a time when any stand-up comic, news anchor, movie producer, and 45th President of the United States might be credibly accused of rape on any particular day.
Motherless Brooklyn doesn’t have anything terribly original to contribute to the noir genre, but the hard-boiled cynicism at its core at least has one resonant thing to say. The big shots know what’s best. They’re men (almost always men) of vision who are building the future. They’re too important to be constrained by things like voters or oversight or morals, and if they feel like stealing or raping, it’s the price the rest of us peons need to occasionally pay to be the recipients of their infinite beneficence.
Kenneth Lowe is keeping this under his hat. He’s also a regular contributor at Escapist Magazine and you can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.