Movie-Hype (#717) – MR. BROOKS
No matter how often I preach that you should look at movies based on the director and writer, most people still are “star-driven” in their approach. Because of that, and because of the baggage that stars like Kevin Costner, Demi Moore and even Dane Cook bring with them, MR. BROOKS did very poorly in theatres. That is too bad, because it is also a terrific movie. It will NOT be for everybody; there is definitely a group of people who would not like MR. BROOKS no matter what. However, the film is so surprisingly good, that if you are in the right group, you’re going to want to make MR. BROOKS this year’s Halloween treat.
Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner), is a successful businessman (Portland Chamber of Commerce’s “Man of the Year”), and also a loving husband and father. And he kills people. He kills because he is addicted to it, a self-diagnosed condition that he equates to every addiction: an amalgam of genetics and bad choices. Also, Mr. Brooks kills because it’s fun; a rush like none other. (These last two sentences bring up a host of issues, which we will deal with at the end, because chicks like it when you are socially responsible and stuff.)
Speaking of issues, Earl has an imaginary friend named Marshall, who lives in Earl’s head. Marshall is given voice (and body) by John Hurt, and is often on screen. I mention this because Mr. Brooks spends a great deal of the film talking to Marshall, yet others appear not to notice. Intelligent people will quickly deduce that the conversations are internal, but you’d be shocked how many people wouldn’t figure that out, obliging me to mention it.
Earl does not want to kill. Rather, he does want to kill, but he doesn’t want to want to. Classic addictive behavior, so much so that Earl attends AA meetings and uses tools like repetition of the Serenity Prayer to keep him straight. However, this being a movie and all, I don’t think I have to tell you that MR. BROOKS is not the uplifting story about how one man faces his demons and overcomes addiction.
There are way way way way way way way too many subplots in this movie. (Illustrated, very cleverly, I might add, by how I put too many “ways” in that sentence.) Speaking of clever, another affliction the movie suffers is an overabundance of Clever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We’re not watching a movie about a serial killer for the morality tale, and certainly not for a how-to class (at least I hope). We are suspending our disbelief in the greater schema of moral behavior to watch, admire and even root for a bad man. The least the movie can do is twirl its mustaches theatrically and occasionally present us with a surprise hat full of rabbits. And it does. I cannot remember the last time I was surprised more than once by a film.
Back to the subplots:
The subplot of Mr. Smith (Dane Cook) – The first time we go along with our evil genius Mr. Brooks (and of course Marshall) to a murder, he is photographed THROUGH AN OPEN WINDOW by Mr. Smith. (I am torn whether this is a sly commentary by the filmmaker that every murderer—no matter how smart—is still somewhat dumb, or just the plot’s need to get into the story quickly, but either way I enjoyed the irony.) Mr. Smith, far from being horrified and going to the police, is turned on as he never has been, and wants in. Mr. Smith blackmails Mr. Brooks, not for money, but rather the right to tag along on the next murder.
I came to this movie with a low opinion of Dane Cook, or at least puzzlement over why he is the It Guy. I have yet to enjoy his comedy (or his baseball commercials), and generally just find his “asshole frat-boy” tiring. Maybe that’s your thing. But whatever, he is terrific here, taking that image and yet twisting it to give us a believable character. I do not think most people would want to be a part of murder for the thrill of it, but I can see Mr. Smith doing it, and whatever you think of Cook, he adds to the film. Unfortunately, it is a complication Mr. Brooks does not need in his life with everything else going on. He is trying to quit, remember?
The subplot of Detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore) – I bring a whole lot of feelings into any movie with Demi Moore. I dislike virtually everything I know about her, and consequently probably tend to devalue her performances. Here she plays Tracy Atwood, the detective on the hunt for the “Thumbprint Killer,” Earl’s signature. Detective Atwood comes with her own baggage. She’s in the middle of a messy divorce. She’s the best cop in Portland, the only one capable of solving all the tough murders. (Since we are short on time, let’s forgo Hyperion’s usual diatribe about cops who look like models.) Oh yeah: she’s not a cop because she needs the money. She’s worth 60 million, making her job an altruistic quest to get the bad guy. And to top it off, one of the worst serial killers ever has just escaped from prison and vows to kill her. Doesn’t it sound like Demi was allowed to write her own character description? Besides taking time away from far more interesting parts of the story, Moore is just miscast here. Even if I could somehow forget that “ooh, it’s Demi Moore, and she’s back acting and isn’t that great?!?”, the whole part feels wrong.
The subplot of the Wife/Daughter – Marg Helgenberger plays the loving wife Emma. It is always a little strange to see TV stars that have become familiar to us in different roles. When I first saw Helgenberger in CSI, I would have sworn on a stack of penal codes that it was her first role. In the years since I have become disabused of that notion, seeing her in approximately 765 movies. In fact, I am fairly sure there is a law that says if ever CSI is not playing on some channel (which is not all that often, I admit), one of Helgenberger’s movies must be. But I’m not hating. She does well in a very limited role.
Much more interesting is the daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker), home after less than one semester of college without her BMW and with a whole lot of secrets. Such as why she left college. Remember that whole “I’m a killer because of genetics” line of reasoning that Mr. Brooks has? Follow that through.
What is ultimately so fascinating about this subplot is that here you have a killer, one who may think he’s doing the wrong thing, but certainly does not feel “guilt” in the conventional sense. At the same time, he clearly loves his wife and daughter, and when evidence starts growing that the gun doesn’t fall too far from the holster Earl is wracked with guilt and fear; that he’s a bad dad, that it’s his fault his daughter (might be) the way she is. Normal father stuff. I don’t know why I found that fascinating, that a man could have such a secret life, be so evil, at least the way we’d look at it, and yet have all the frailties and doubts of a normal husband and parent.
This brings us back to Earl. I will admit, around the time of ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES I was as huge a Costner fan as there was. Since then he has squandered that good will with bloated vanity projects; some that worked, most that did not. He also has cultivated this quiet, too nice to be believed guy in his sports films and romantic comedies. Of course, that and a dollar would be a dollar more than I have, and three hundred million fewer than Costner has. In other words, who cares what I (and others, who used to love Costner’s work) think? One of the perks of being so monstrously successful in his early career is it gave him the clout to make big-budget fiascos and cherry-pick roles that make him look so great, and screw anyone who doesn’t like it. (At least, from his point of view). That said, I am no longer a fan.
Hyperion’s Rating Guide
Suspension of Disbelief (What you need going in to not nitpick the movie to death, based on a scale of 0-10): I think you have to suspend most all of it. This is not a movie to examine through the critical lens of reality. An 8.
Genre Grade: Is protagonist-killer a genre? Neo-noir? Crime thriller? What do we call this movie? Let’s call it Crime movie, and based on that broad category I’d say B+.
Sex/Violence/Language? Not enough nudity, but in this puritanical age any is appreciated. More specifically, about 20 seconds, but most of the time the girl is dead, so it isn’t titillating. (Unless you are one of those.) Obviously there is violence, not a whole lot, but it is jarring. And some language too. Basically, as I alluded to in my review, THIS MOVIE IS NOT FOR KIDS.
Pantheon Percentile (0-99) – When we judge a film next to every movie ever made, I think the moral component has to at least be a factor, which ultimately grades MR. BROOKS down just a bit. Still, this movie is quite well crafted and acted. I remain impressed. 75.
But maybe I need to reconsider. Costner is very good here. Surprisingly good, even shockingly good. Why do I say that? It’s not like he forgot how to act. True, but he usually plays the same guy, and after a while you sort of put him in that category of actor that basically plays one thing. Here Earl Brooks is a completely different persona. He walks differently. He talks differently (both tone and cadence). That patented slow smile and bittersweet twinkle in his eye? Gone. Costner puts together a crafted performance that is completely worth of Oscar consideration.
Even better is the chemistry Costner and William Hurt have together. Playing two halves of the same person, the symmetry of their performances are eerie and compelling, and easily the best part of the movie. Earl is a completely different person when he’s with Marshall. (William Hurt, by the way, does his William Hurt thing and knocks Marshall out of the park. You find yourself secretly glad that guy isn’t in ultimate control, or the entire city of Portland might be dead by now.) What’s even cooler about their interaction is how often it happens in front of other people. Lightning quick does Earl change his affect while addressing two characters, only one of whom he can see.
At this point, I want to break from the review slightly to talk about what—if any—social responsibility a film like MR. BROOKS has. Violence is a part of the cinematic experience, and normally not something we give much thought. However, in MR. BROOKS, we are asked to watch a serial killer without judging him. He’s fairly cool, and manages to have a wife, family and a successful business too. He’s a millionaire, and he kills people and gets away with it. Does this send a bad message?
In some ways it does. While the movie doesn’t revel in the killing like so much of nihilistic cinema in the past decade, the addiction argument is presented without refutation, an implicit endorsement. We are invited to overlook Mr. Brook’s immoral acts because it is a compulsion. It’s also fun, but so are drugs and alcohol. It’s a disease and not his fault. I think there is a potential danger to that line of thinking, even if there is some truth to it. Maybe especially if there is.
However, I don’t think a rational person would be in any way swayed by Earl Brooks to do violence. (And an irrational person could just as easily be pushed over the edge by a toaster, so there is no point making movies based on what they might do.)
I think the answer lies in keeping this movie away from children. While there is some nudity, language, and violence, odds are your kids have seen worse. The real reason to say no—even to teens—is that they are developmentally too young to put the subtleties of MR. BROOKS in perspective, and just be entertained and watch a fascinating character study. In some ways, it is easier to overlook obvious gratuitous violence than Mr. Brooks’s more cerebral kind.
I have one minute left, so let us go to the big finish. Every subplot I brought up is overdone, and each one gets in the way of the other. It is not confusing, but there is a lot going on here. More importantly, it takes time away that I wanted to spend with Earl and Marshall. However, somehow all those subplots work together, and it all makes sense in the end. A twisted sense, yes, but it works. Even Demi Moore.
Most other reviews either hack the movie to pieces as ridiculous, or call it a guilty pleasure. I have to disagree. I think they are either too cynical to just enter into the world of the movie, or feel the need to justify enjoying it. I do neither. MR. BROOKS is just a good movie.
If you can buy that Earl is a serial killer who talks to himself inside his head, and that this movie is not going to judge him for either his killing or his apparent craziness, and if you can buy the fact (or at least live with for movie-watching sake) that somehow Mr. Brooks is able to be successful in business and love his wife and kid and want the best for them, then you can let the other stretches of logic and plot conveniences go. There is so much going on here to like that it simply outmuscles the other stuff to the ground.
And perhaps this will help: I read online that MR. BROOKS is supposedly the first of three planned movies. Put in that perspective, much of the unresolved subplotting makes more sense, and better yet, gives me something to look forward to next year. MR. BROOKS is a terrific alternative scary movie, and definitely worth consideration for your Halloween party this year.