Motherless Brooklyn (Blu-Ray Review)

Edward Norton’s second crack at directing makes its way home on Blu-ray sans any Oscar nominations but is nonetheless a solid adaptation of Jonathan Lethem’s award-winning novel. There are have been plenty of gumshoe detective tales in cinema. Some like Chinatown are masterworks, while too many are forgettable – like that one that with ‘Mulholland‘ in the title but not David Lynch under ‘directed by.’ A 4K release of a good-looking period tale would have been preferable. Still, this 2K transfer is no slouch for anyone who loved the film or even folks like me who were anxious to play catch up. The strong cast includes Alec Baldwin, Willem Defoe, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Norton himself as the lead. There’s corruption afoot, so let’s venture into a Motherless Brooklyn to see what a junior private investigator uncovers.


I have no idea why it took so long for Edward Norton to follow up on his charming directorial debut, 2000’s Keeping the Faith. He’s a guy that’s known for adding his creative input beyond his own acting in many endeavors.

Norton famously took over American History X from director Tony Kaye by locking him out of the edit bay. Or there’s that time when Norton was on Inside the Actor’s Studio (never mind that Salma Hayek was the one being interviewed, and he was just her boyfriend) where it was revealed he provided a major uncredited rewrite for Frida. There’s also his work in shaping the character of Bruce Banner for Incredible Hulk, which led to conflicts with Marvel Studios. Did Norton see himself as a wunderkind for all? Maybe.

Norton has been wanting to make Motherless Brooklyn for over two decades. Clearly, he had a passion for Lethem’s novel about a youngish (Norton is fifty but looks younger) Tourettes-afflicted guy named Lionel Essrog, whose life is upended when his P.I. mentor (Bruce Willis) is murdered.

Set in New York, the noir-ish tale involves rich siblings with opposing political views, the gentrification of the poorer part of the Brooklyn, and the resulting socioeconomic realities of the have and have nots.

Very early on, Norton decided to change the time period of the novel. While the book takes place in the late 90s with prominent critiques on Trump and other post-Reagan era capitalists, the film is set in the post-war 50s.

Any fan of this genre can see how a change to the 50s makes sense… sort of. There’s no denying the cast which pits Baldwin (terrific as a corrupt right-wing politician) and Defoe (his left-leaning grassroots bro) against each other is a well oil-machine of intrigue. Whenever the two actors are onscreen, spouting competing monologues about the need for progress versus the will of the people, I was pretty engaged.

Yes, I’ve seen these character types before, but the sets, costumes, and performances sell it. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (The Morning Show), who plays a young African-American human rights lawyer, also impresses as Norton’s partner and (somewhat regressively) the love interest. Even smaller parts, such as Fisher Stevens as a thug, work better than expected.

Yet, by placing this in the 50s, the story can’t help but feel less unique. I mean, even Rockstar Games has LA Noir, and that was way back 2011. That was yet another world of big cars and jazz, but I could cruise around on my own, so that was something.

As a director, Norton makes a wise choice not to get flashy. There’s one visual choice where he holds back on revealing the faces of villainous men. It’s a neat idea that almost wears out it’s welcome the first time we meet Baldwin’s character, but overall, the “look at mise en scene” vibe is subdued.

Norton, the filmmaker, for the most part, gets out of the way of Norton, the writer, which is a good thing. Also, at 142 minutes, this is way more focused and entertaining than fellow A-lister Ben Affleck’s disappointing 20s era crim flick Live By Night from late 2016. It’s no neo-noir classic, but the film has its share of fun.


  • Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC
  • Resolution: 1080P
  • Aspect Ratio: 1:85:1
  • Clarity/Detail: The landscapes of 50s Brooklyn looks sharp.
  • Depth: The close quarters of a smokey nightclub can feel intimate or far way as Norton looks up to the jazz band as he tries not to blurt out obscenities via his condition.
  • Black Levels: Black levels are strong for a 2K disc.
  • Color Reproduction: The color is palate is not bright like a musical, but the outfits or say, an old wooden desk is rich.
  • Flesh Tones: Flesh tones are natural and well rendered.
  • Noise/Artifacts: None were present that affected the viewing experience.


  • Audio Format(s): DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 (48kHz, 16-bit), French, Portuguese, Spanish all 5.1 Dolby Digital
  • Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish, French, Portuguese
  • Dynamics: Dialogue is clear and present. Norton might not have voiceover as memorable as Jack’s in Fight Club, but you’ll for sure understand it.
  • Low-Frequency Extension: There’s not a lot of big quiet moments, but the range from a whisper to the bang of a gun is palpable.
  • Surround Sound Presentation: Sounded excellent with my Sony soundbar.
  • Height: While there’s not a lot of explosions, the crowd scenes have great spacial depth.
  • Dialogue Reproduction: Dialogue is loud and clear.


Motherless Brooklyn sadly didn’t get a 4K release. Housed in a one-disc case with the theatrical poster art, a cardboard slipcover, and MoviesAnywhere digital redemption. The extras here are:

  • Audio Commentary – A full-length commentary with writer-director Edward Norton. As mentioned before, this was a passion project for him, and the commentary track proves it. One of the better commentaries by an actor-turned-director.
  • Making-Of: Edward Norton’s Methodical Process (9:38) – A typical EPK type piece that briefly goes into the differences between the film and the novel. Other creative choices made in making the film are explored too. Includes Norton, producer Bill Migliore, DP Dick Pope and cast members Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Bobby Cannavale, Alec Baldwin, and Willem Dafoe
  • Deleted Scenes (5:19)


There’s something to be said for sticking with something for nearly twenty years. Who knows where I’d be if stuck with my idea for an all muppets version of Jesus Christ Superstar (If only Fozzy Bear wasn’t such a diva!)? I would be lucky to have pulled off a smart, engaging, well-made (if a tad generic) adaptation of an acclaimed novel. Hopefully, the next project Mr. Norton sets his sights on won’t take til 2040 to see its release on a 32K disc.

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