Disillusionment from economic growth, ruthless, and possibly corrupt, men in power disregarding everything but their egos and a country that is tenuously holding on to an impression of race relations.
The film, adapted from Jonathan Lethem’s bestselling book, follows Lionel Essrog (played by Edward Norton), a private investigator who suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, as he tries to find the men behind the murder of his mentor. I had the pleasure of seeing the film during the New York Film Festival, where Norton, Willem Dafoe, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw provided their insight and inspiration behind the engaging thriller that grabbed my attention and ran all the way home with it.
Norton’s version is a departure from Lethem’s contemporary novel. Norton explained that his changes were not just run by Lethem but actively encouraged by him. The change in the time period and the characters were all envisioned by Norton, leading to a unique adaptation with a timeless quality.
This timeless quality is the reason why the film’s social commentary hits hard and does not miss the mark. The mystery revolves around the powerful and influential Moses Randolph (played by Alec Baldwin), inspired by the controversial “master builder” of New York, Robert Moses. Norton’s version of Lionel is the little man who slowly peels back the lies and subterfuge involved in city politics, only to find how the wider class and race struggles, coupled with his own personal struggles, all revolve around Moses and his obstinate ego. The focus on a tyrannical, New York power broker — a character-type that Baldwin plays with great panache — hits a chord that rings true to today’s political and social climate. As Dafoe, regarding his interest of the script, candidly explained at the screening: “It meant something then and it means something now.”
While the greater themes and overall plot are impressive and engaging, Norton has to be credited by coalescing them into a film that exudes his unique vision. Wearing multiple hats, both literally in the film and metaphorically in practice as the writer, director, producer, and finally, lead actor, he created an interesting story with fantastic direction at an elaborate scale. Inspired by films helmed by actors taking on multiple roles in production, e.g. Reds, Unforgiven, Citizen Kane, Norton committed himself to this approach successfully.
Norton says, “Many of us have been inspired by people who took big swings, not just wearing these hats, but at making a big film about the American character. What inspires me about Citizen Kane is that it treats people like adults. It assumes that people are smart enough to listen to a meditation on character.”
The film’s writing certainly treats the audience as adults. It transgresses cookie-cutter clichés and send offs to crime thrillers and noirs, elevating it from a stereotypical imitation. Even the predictable moments are quickly brushed aside as the plot moves straight on through. This approach subverts the viewers expectations at times, helping the mystery feel fresh and giving the film that alluring feeling that the answers are just around the corner.
The writing also deserves credit for steering clear of the tired plot device that the character suffering with the disability is a savant. Lionel is a fleshed-out character that isn’t defined by his disability, with his flaws and faults shining through along with his tenacious need to do the right thing. Norton’s admiration of Lethem’s approach to the character’s disability demonstrates the similar approach he uses for Lionel’s characterization: “On page one, he did what we hoped we transposed: you were inside his head and outside witnessing him, and there was this immediate intimacy. The achievement of instant empathy is really something. Those things are so rare, you realize that, ‘I’ll go anywhere with this guy once I’m hooked.’”
The solid performances from the star-studded cast is what makes the film really stand out. While Lionel wins over the audience’s attention as a heroic protagonist, the performances of Baldwin, Dafoe, and Mbatha-Raw were especially great. The most impressive is Baldwin, who is able to display the gravity and ego of the character with terrifying accuracy. (The recent years of playfully mocking egocentrics haven’t dulled that aspect of the actor’s repertoire.) Dafoe’s portrayal of a disgraced engineer helps the mystery come alive as his weird and eccentric tendencies complicated the mystery. Mbatha-Raw, known for her theater performances and stand-out role in Black Mirror, is an interesting opposite for Lionel and, with credit to the writing, plays a strong-willed woman who is defined by her views and actions and whose role within the story is not diminished by the male lead, which is always welcomed in modern cinema.
The direction and cinematography deserve commendation for the grand scale they aimed for. Even when Warner picked up the then-independent film, its budget alone couldn’t do justice to the scale which Norton envisioned for his film. The set design is immaculate, displaying the disparities between class and the beauty of old New York incredibly. There are many New York landmarks recreated for the movie that are bound to leave audiences in awe.
Norton does fly too close to the sun at times. A tight budget means resorting to CGI for the grandiose set piece scenes. While it’s admirable that Norton wants to show a car chase scene that allows the viewer to see ten streets down, it really takes the viewer out of the experience if the taxi in the rear-view mirror looks like it’s out of a PlayStation 2 game. Thankfully, these moments are far and few between, especially since much of the focus of the film is pitting the scale of human accomplishments to the humans they affect.
It is the focus on the people and their stories that makes the film stand out within the context of the modern day. Its relevant commentary doesn’t hit you over the head with it and instead immerses the viewer into the situation of the time, a situation which has many similarities to things being done and said today. The film transgresses and subverts expectations through theme, juxtaposition, and good writing— all of which elevates it to a movie resonate to the anxieties of today. Edward Norton has done an exceptional job of creating a film that entices audiences to listen to a mediation on a character that is ever present in American history.
Based in New Jersey, Vickram Singh is a staff editor for Honeysuckle Magazine, where he runs his column: Raised by the Internet. He is also the Managing Editor and staff writer for The Medium, the satirical newspaper at Rutgers University, where he currently studies.