Edward Norton’s sophomore directorial effort arrives nearly twenty years after his 2000 romcom Keeping the Faith, and it couldn’t be more different. Helped along by formidable turns by Alec Baldwin as a fictionalized Robert Moses, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Norton’s love interest and Willem Dafoe as a sharp outsider, Motherless Brooklyn has a grab bag of talent that carries it through a decidedly mixed bag. Despite some pacing issues and a collection of underdeveloped characters, the film functions well enough as an old-fashioned, intelligent, atmospheric studio private investigator drama and shows this dormant genre still has legs. This passion project also lets Norton step in front of the camera and indulge in the kind of tic-heavy acting challenge he embraced early in his career. He casts himself as Lionel Essrog, who works for a ramshackle detective agency (and part-time car service) headed up by Frank Minna (Bruce Willis in a glorified cameo) in 1950s Brooklyn. Lionel has Tourette’s syndrome, which causes verbal outbursts and some physical tics. And Norton takes a tricky gamble with his performance and works some wonders with it, lacing his physicality with jerky movements and sudden bouts of verbal gobbledygook every few seconds without playing them for laughs (except for a few carefully timed moments).
It’s no easy task for Lionel to get anyone to take him seriously, but as he follows the bread crumbs, the circumstances behind Frank’s death (an event that happens in the opening moments of the film) expand into a vast conspiracy — too vast often to sustain the level of intrigue stuffed into the film’s two-hour-twenty-four minute runtime. While Jonathan Lethem’s novel, which the film is based off, unfolded across three-hundred pages, Norton’s treatment has a tendency to feel flabby and redundant, cycling through a range of murky characters as it maps out a sprawling network of circumstances. But the plot offers plenty of twists for Lionel to chew on. Ultimately, his winding investigation leads him to corrupt parks commissioner Moses Randolph (Baldwin), a thinly veiled version of the real-life Robert Moses, whose city-planning ambitions squashed so many low-income communities across town. Visually, that town and the film in general, doesn’t carry many exciting tricks, but cinematographer Dick Pope decently balances trying to give New York City a treatment of evocative grey tones, but also delivering some dull compositions. This stylized take on the city feels at once antiquated and modern, complimenting the way Moses speaks of the landscape as his personal art project. Baldwin manages to reign in his more exuberant tendencies and give his proto-Trumpian villain a real sense of purpose (“Power is doing what you like,” he says, in a standout monologue).
While Motherless Brooklyn has character, it often comes up short of generating the emotion that the material demands. Lionel’s constant recollections about Frank come and go in rushed observations that fall short of allowing the character’s impact on Lionel to come through. His developing romance with Laura (Mbatha-Raw) lacks sufficient chemistry to make them seem like a credible pair. Lionel spends much of the movie hiding the full nature of his investigation from her, and when the truth comes out, she pretty much just shrugs it off. Motherless Brooklyn often strains from squeezing in everything it can, resulting in fragments of a more cohesive movie. But the film does eventually settle into a showdown involving no less than the city’s soul (which is helped brought to life by a haunting, jazzy Thom Yorke song), with Lionel fighting a rigged system involving a wealthy businessmen and their unwitting victims even though he knows some part of the battle has already been lost. The noble struggle (or “Daily Battles” as the aforementioned Yorke song is titled) allows Motherless Brooklyn to build toward a meaningful resolution of its many moving parts. But like many of the long-winded investigative epics, Motherless Brooklyn doesn’t aim to uncover every puzzle piece so much as it revels in the allure of putting them together. For New York City, a jagged enigma in constant motion, it’s a fitting salute. Though it has its struggles, Motherless Brooklyn in the kind of old-fashioned, knotty, character-rich, politically conscious film that so seldomly gets a studio behind it, and, in the end it’s just great to see it come to life.
The Kill Team
Back in 2001, in a post-9/11 America, the United States began to wage the now-endless War in Afghanistan. In 2006 the U.S. Army retired its slogan of “Be All that You Can Be” and replaced it with “Army of One.” But that didn’t take, so the marketing team went back to the drawing board and came with a tagline so popular that it would be in active use for over the next decade: “Army Strong.” Unlike the two previous slogans, it was short, it was aspirational and it shifted focus away from the solider. “Army Strong” wasn’t about self-improvement or individual power, it was saying, in brute terms, that the Army is strength. Which must have been a difficult message to internalize for the soldiers who were sent halfway across the world just to flex their country’s muscles. How were they supposed to restore the might that made sense of their mission? Some version of that question has clearly haunted Dan Krauss since at least 2013, when his powerful documentary The Kill Team explored the circumstances behind an infamous series of murders that U.S. soldiers committed against Afghan civilians in the Kandahar Province. But with the war in Afghanistan still raging six years later, Krauss hasn’t been able to move on. And he’s now adapted his own documentary into a feature film.
Early on in The Kill Team Andrew Briggman (Nat Wolff) tacks a recruitment poster on his bedroom wall asking: “Are you Army Strong?” And the young man seems to think that he knows what that means. Smoking on the porch with his father on the night before he reports for duty, Andrew says that going to Afghanistan is “his chance.” His chance to be more of a man than his desk-job dad? His chance to do something with the biceps he’s building from his thousands of push-ups? It’s unclear. But as his opening few weeks pass in Afghanistan, a tragic explosion kills the kind-hearted man who was leading Andrew’s unit. And it’s after that tragedy where Andrew meets someone who spells everything out for him in the simplest of terms. His name is Sergeant Deeks (Alexander Skarsgård), he’s basically the scariest alpha male alive, and he tells the soldiers that in exchange for their loyalty he will grant them “the chance to be a warrior. The chance to actually do something out here. To be a part of history, instead of just reading about it in some book.”
Through all of it, Andrew is more cipher than character, and The Kill Team does itself a great disservice by making him such an uncomplicated lamb in the face of Deeks’ bloodthirsty wolf, but it’s still harrowing to watch the new recruit scramble for some firm moral ground to stand on once the other men in his unit start killing civilians behind closed doors. The straightforwardness of Krauss’ script can often be limiting, especially having such a passive protagonist, but it works to the film’s advantage whenever Deeks tries to justify his actions. It may not be right to kill “ten of them to save one of us” (the morality of that rationale is as questionable as its math), but it’s clear that the sergeant has internalized that logic at the deepest levels of his soul. While Krauss is, for some reason, too skittish about the specifics and struggles to dramatize Andrew’s decision to blow the whistle on his brothers, he tightly holds firm to the ethical compromises at work, and runs them all the way up the ladder. But Krauss still doesn’t let these men off the hook for their crimes, instead shining a harsh and bracing light on what it means to be on the frontlines of a war that we have been fighting since the turn of the century. And while Deeks may lead the way, nobody can really be Army Strong on their own. Though lacking the nuance that appeared in the documentary and also being underwritten, The Kill Team remains a tense moral thriller that captures the ways war can corrupt from within.