“Why do you fight it so hard, Earl?” —William Hurt, Mr. Brooks
Mr. Brooks came out in early summer of 2007, wedged between the sure-thing blockbuster sequels that are more common stock for that time of year: Spider-Man 3, 28 Weeks Later, Shrek The Third, and Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End before, Ocean’s Thirteen and Fantastic Four after. It could generously be called “counter-programming,” but it was really more a movie out of time, featuring a cast of megastars (Kevin Costner, William Hurt, Demi Moore) that would have been a big draw, say, 20 years ago. Perhaps only a studio as incompetent as MGM/UA could think to produce an original, effects-free thriller and release it in piranha-filled waters, but even as anomalies go, Mr. Brooks is stranger than most, an overstuffed, flagrantly ridiculous serial-killer movie played completely straight. Critics were mostly unkind at the time, but the film has lingered in the culture, popping up for reassessment or guilty-pleasure notice ever since.
There’s no question that Mr. Brooks is a flawed film, chock-a-block with red herrings, goofy contrivances, and wayward subplots, not to mention one major character who could stand to be cut out altogether. It’s also hard to parse out which laughs come from its strain of dark comedy and which ones might be of the unintentional variety. Whatever the case, Mr. Brooks has at its center the most opaque, compelling serial killer in recent memory, a buttoned-down businessman who most closely resembles white-collar madman Patrick Bateman in American Psycho, only far more reserved and less bluntly metaphorical. In short, he’s a hard guy to figure out, and so is the confounding movie around him.
Consider all the elements at play here: Kevin Costner, a laid-back, down-the-middle Everyman throughout his career, starring as a murder “addict”—a turn nearly as out of step with his screen persona as Henry Fonda’s blue-eyed psychopath in Once Upon A Time In The West. William Hurt plays the devil on Costner’s shoulder, an imaginary metaphysical sidekick who goads Costner into killing and shares a few hearty laughs with him, too. Stand-up Dane Cook takes a rare straight role as a would-be extortionist/copycat killer who gets in over his head, and Demi Moore crops up as a police detective worth upward of $60 million. Factor in two separate, tangentially related murder plots, a fiercely contested mega-bucks divorce settlement, and enough loose threads to knit a Christmas sweater, and Mr. Brooks is about 30 minutes longer than the tight pulp thriller it might have been, and about twice as weird.
Mr. Brooks opens with Costner’s Earl Brooks, the boring old owner of a box factory, accepting a Man Of The Year award from the Portland Chamber Of Commerce for his business acumen and philanthropy. In spite of this ironic achievement, he isn’t entirely undeserving: Earl hasn’t killed anybody in two years. But tonight, his invisible alter-ego Marshall (Hurt) is whispering in his ear, begging him to pop the cork by rubbing out a couple of dancers for old times’ sake. Earl fancies himself a decent, Christian man, but at this moment, when he’s clearly bored to death by the highest of bourgeois achievements, Marshall sounds awfully persuasive.
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Costner’s robotic delivery of that last line, “I thought the food tonight was very good, but I was not crazy about the dessert. Would you like to stop somewhere and get some dessert?”, may be my favorite moment of the entire film, and it’s one of the more telling. Earl isn’t merely disengaged with the trappings of ordinary adulthood, like having a devoted wife (Marg Helgenberger) and a thriving business. It’s more than that: He needs to remind himself at all times to go through the alien motions of being a normal person. When he proposes the dessert plan to his wife, Earl’s mask slips a little, because he’s so distracted by his inner dialogue that every word is creepily enunciated, with no contractions or modifications in tone. To borrow a phrase from Donnie Darko, he’s wearing the “man suit” that keeps the monster under wraps.
When Earl resolves to kill the couple, the manner in which he goes about his business is telling in a number of ways. First off, he’s meticulous to an almost comical extreme: He has one of those secret, only-in-the-movies stainless-steel bunkers where he keeps a rack full of dark suits, a marching line of rubber boots, and an incinerator to burn the evidence. This isn’t a careful killer at work; this is an OCD killer, making neat the messy ordeal of murder. (At the scene, he plugs his victims with two clean shots to the head, with his gun in a plastic freezer bag.) In spite of Marshall’s talk about “having fun” or deserving “a treat,” there’s never any indication that his compulsion brings him any joy at all, which is part of the addict’s dilemma. And on a conscious or subconscious level—you could make a good argument for one or the other—he wants to be caught, which is why he sloppily (or deliberately) kills the dancers while the bedroom curtains are still wide open, risking the probability that these sexual exhibitionists have an audience.
Of course, we find out they do have an audience in Cook’s “Mr. Smith,” an amateur photographer who’s been keeping his telephoto trained on them from his apartment across the street. Incriminating evidence in hand, Mr. Smith shows up at Earl’s office with what seems like one hell of a bargaining chip, something that could cause the Portland Chamber Of Commerce to take back its plaque. And I think part of the genius of casting Cook is that we’re primed to expect the brash, obnoxious swagger we’ve seen in his stand-up specials and lowbrow comedies, but that swagger gets undercut dramatically. In this stunning scene, Earl sizes up this seemingly grave threat to his livelihood and doesn’t sweat a drop. Watch how quickly the power shifts:
The cat-and-mouse game between Earl and Mr. Smith—and our cackling buddy, Marshall, of course—provides some of the most entertaining scenes in Mr. Brooks, but as threats to Earl’s livelihood and legacy go, Mr. Smith ranks a distant third. More pressing concerns surface in the form of Moore’s millionaire detective, who’s dangerous because her pursuit of justice transcends any practical need for an income, and Earl’s daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker), a college dropout who appears to have inherited his homicidal instincts. Mr. Smith can be jerked around, placated, or, if necessary, murdered, because he’s just as much an amateur as an extortionist as he is as a photographer. These women, on the other hand, are a real concern.
Let’s get Moore out of the way first: The concept of a rich detective isn’t bad, but writer-director Bruce A. Evans doesn’t do much with it. We see she’s dedicated to her job and good at it, which has nothing to do with money, but this business of her expensive divorce settlement (and the way her ex-husband and his attorney are shoehorned into the action later) is the kind of go-nowhere subplot that makes Mr. Brooks so strange and unruly, and not always in a good way. Add to that some ridiculously superfluous silliness about another serial killer with a vendetta against her, and her presence in the movie becomes a tributary barely connected to the river.
Jane, on the other hand, is a fascinating case, not least because a development concerning her leads to Costner going incognito in the goofiest, most conspicuous hippie get-up imaginable. Keep in mind, Earl fancies himself a morally upstanding guy, not unlike Terry O’Quinn in The Stepfather. He whispers Reinhold Niebuhr’s serenity prayer to himself like a mantra. (“Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”) He comes out forcefully against an abortion when Jane announces her pregnancy, he arranges the bodies of his latest victims to stress their sinfulness, and he lives comfortably with his hypocrisy in not revealing the nature of his “addiction” when attending a support-group meeting at church. At the same time, he has an instinct for self-preservation (and a father’s protectiveness) that far outstrips his dim flickers of conscience. “Helping” his daughter by murdering someone else on campus in a similar fashion goes against his code, but he does what’s necessary. In the end, preserving the lie of his upstanding, Man Of The Year reputation outstrips the relief of getting caught and unburdening himself of a joyless double life.
Underrated as I think it is—enough to crawl out from under guilty-pleasure status, anyway—Mr. Brooks isn’t a perfect film by any standard, but even its faults and excesses give it character. It also confirms my belief that Kevin Costner is an underappreciated actor, particularly when he finds a role that squeezes into his admittedly limited range. Playing a serial killer with restraint takes discipline; even the cold-and-calculating types tend to evoke glowers from actors. But Costner shows a chilling reserve that’s really just the flip side of his relaxed performances in Bull Durham and Tin Cup. Earl is full of contradictions and inner turmoil—as the killer final stinger makes clear—but he’s also firmly in control, and Costner never betrays Earl’s anxiety on the surface as anything more than mild distraction. He’s a fine businessman, a great philanthropist, and an even better killer.
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