Mr. Brooks (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Mr. Brooks is a curious mix of the campy and the intelligent, of high concept and low psychology. In spite of these contradictions, or perhaps because of them, it works. This is a tense and engaging thriller, the kind of movie where the audience may feel a little discomfort because the main character is an anti-hero, but will be involved because he's so damn smart. And unlike the recent (and not entirely dissimilar) Fracture, which built its ending on character assassination and unlikely contrivances, Mr. Brooks stays true to its principals and their principles to the last frame.

Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) has been voted Portland's Man of the Year. Unbeknownst to everyone, he's also the mysterious "Thumbprint Killer," a serial murderer who has been active on-and-off for a long time. Earl hasn't killed in two years, but the hunger, represented by his demonic alter-ego, Marshall (William Hurt), has become too strong to resist. So, after dropping his wife (Marg Helgenberger) home after the Man of the Year banquet, he goes out for a little extracurricular fun. This time, however, Earl makes an uncharacteristic mistake. The window drapes of his victims' apartment are open when he commits the murder, and a voyeur (Dane Cook) photographs him in the act. Meanwhile, police detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore), who has long investigated the Thumbprint Killer, suspects her previously infallible quarry may have slipped up.

Mr. Brooks handles the split personality by having two actors play facets of Earl's personality. Kevin Costner is the rational, intelligent, dominant one. William Hurt is the amoral, animalistic aspect, who goes by the name of Marshall. Most of the time, Earl is in control, but there are times when Marshall's promptings become too powerful to ignore. The interaction between these actors is fascinating to observe. Although they take place solely in Earl's mind, director Bruce A. Evans has dramatized them by freezing time around Earl and Marshall and letting the dialogue play out. The approach is off-putting at first, but it doesn't take long for the viewer to settle into the film's rhythm.

The story throws a couple of unexpected obstacles in Earl's path. The character is so meticulous that it seems impossible that he could be caught unless he wants someone to stop him, and this possibility is explored. It's interesting to note that, despite the brutality of Earl's acts, he's actually a sympathetic character. Evans manages this by making Marshall the villain and Earl a tortured soul who would like to stop but can't because he's addicted. By dividing Earl into halves, it becomes possible to like one and dislike the other. Earl is the perfect husband, father, and businessman. Marshall is a dark creature lurking in the corner of his soul, thirsting for blood and mayhem. In fact, Hurt is often shot in such a way that he appears spectral and predatory.

The portrayal of Tracy, Earl's foil, is less effective. Demi Moore tries to make her hard-edged, but the character isn't believable. Her backstory, which includes an ugly divorce and an escaped psycho, feels contrived. She has moments of brilliant intuition but her tenacity leaves something to be desired. The tension between Tracy and Earl would have been heightened had she been more of a genuine threat and less of standard tough woman movie cop. We've seen this character before and Mr. Brooks doesn't give her sufficient exposure to elevate her above the level of the cliché.

With one exception, Evans eschews cheap theatrics and relies upon his actors and the flow of the narrative to draw viewers in and keep them interested. There is one cheat of sorts, and it achieves its aim of delivering a shock. Whether it works in the long-term is up to the individual viewer to decide. (I thought it served its purpose.) Despite the psychological complexity of the human mind illustrated by the dual representation, the film's approach is visceral. The murders are graphic and, in one case, bloody. There is sex and nudity. And Mr. Brooks has a macabre sense of humor.

Costner and Hurt are both very good. During his early years in Hollywood, Costner was as stiff as a board but age has allowed his talent to emerge. Earl is a tricky role. To play him, Costner doesn't only have to portray an "everyman," but an everyman with a dark secret and a decayed core. Hurt has no trouble playing the diabolical Marshall. Demi Moore is less impressive as Tracy. The character is bland and, while the writing is partially to blame, Moore doesn't do anything to own the role.

This is Bruce A. Evans' second outing as a director, and it's a significant improvement over his debut - the Christian Slater vehicle Kuffs, which reached theaters 15 years ago. Ultimately, Mr. Brooks could be viewed as a classy B-grade thriller with an A-level cast. Aspects of the film reminded me of a little movie called The Stepfather, with Terry O'Quinn as a seemingly meek man who serially kills his wives and stepchildren when they disappoint him. There's a little of him in Earl, although Mr. Brooks is a better planner than The Stepfather. Smart characters make thrillers interesting, and Earl passes the litmus test. Like him or hate him, one can't help but admire the guy's thoroughness. And it's nice to sit in the audience and not always be one step ahead of everyone on screen.

Mr. Brooks (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-01
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1