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Mr. Brooks

MGM // R // October 23, 2007
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted November 11, 2007 | E-mail the Author
You know how these things usually go -- a nutjob with a stupid gimmick is rampaging throughout some sprawling metropolis, a tortured detective is hot on his trail, there's some awkward romance along the way and/or a wife/kid/hot girlfriend getting kidnapped, throw in a couple of high-octane shoot-outs and car chases, bang bang...fade to black, roll credits. Mr. Brooks, on the other hand, isn't exactly your garden variety serial killer flick. For one...? Its serial killer -- Earl (Kevin Costner), but you can call him Mr. Brooks -- is the multimillionaire owner of a box conglomerate out of Portland. He has it all: a Better Homes and Gardens cover story for a pad, a doting wife (Marg Helgenberger), a cute-as-a-button daughter (Danielle Panabaker), a passion for pottery, and...y'know, an insatiable thirst for murder. Hardly just the little devil on his shoulder, Mr. Brooks' compulsion to kill is personified in Marshall (William Hurt), a cackling, smartly dressed, imaginary best friend who follows around in Brooks' shadow, continually reminding him how much fun it is to lodge a bullet through someone's forehead. The obligatory detective this go-around is Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore), a tough-as-nails cop who has daddy issues, a messy divorce in the wings, and...oh, why the hell not, $60 million in the bank.

Atwood had been hunting the 'Thumbprint Killer' since his reign of terror in the Pacific Northwest first began, but Mr. Brooks has spent the last couple of years lying low. After getting the nod as Portland's Man of the Year, though, he feels compelled to scratch that itch again. His murders are generally meticulously planned without even the faintest trace of his identity left behind, but Brooks subconsciously wants to be captured now, and his return to mass-murder is much sloppier than usual. His victims' voyeuristic neighbor (a surprisingly decent Dane Cook) snaps a few shots of Brooks in front of the butchered, bloodied, and lovingly arranged bodies. Mr. Smith, as he introduces himself, doesn't track down Brooks in the hopes of landing a multimillion dollar payday, though; he just wants to tag along and learn the ropes as a serial killer.

Mr. Brooks is fat-packed with dizzingly weird plot points, including a bloodthirsty imaginary friend, a pregnancy, Mr. Brooks tooling around in old man and Lebowski-lite makeup, divorce proceedings, murder genes, a smarmy kid who lost her BMW and dropped out of school, stripping buck-nekkid to torch incriminating evidence in a kiln, and, just for good measure, a healthy dollop of pottery chat. If you add up practicing and prospective serial killers, sidekicks, and one-off murderers well on their way to serial killer-dom, there are five killers in the movie. There's a high speed chase with Atwood careening down through the bustling streets of Portland in an out of control van, stabbing her way out of a murderer's clutches; that'd be the climax in any other movie, but in Mr. Brooks, that fight's against someone who barely rates as a supporting character. So...yeah. There's a lot going on.

All of these plot points are eventually paid off in the end, but getting there can be awfully slow, particularly Atwood's meandering subplot about her divorce struggles. A multimillionaire heiress detective's squabble with her former mimbo is just one example of how much Mr. Brooks shrugs off the usual serial killer conventions. The on-screen body count is kept exceptionally low, and the cat-and-mouse theatrics you'd expect between Atwood and Brooks never take place. It's really not a "thriller" in any traditional sense, but that's the genre that seems like the least uncomfortable fit.

I will admit to being impressed with the way Kevin Costner approached the character of Earl Brooks. At a glance, there's absolutely nothing about this successful man with a profound love for his family that exudes lunacy or any sort of psychopathic behavior. Mr. Brooks paints his compulsion to kill as an addiction, even having him attend AA meetings and quietly mutter the Serenity Prayer to himself since there there isn't exactly a twelve step program for mass murderers. In the same way an alcoholic doesn't take any great glee in guzzling bottles of mouthwash when there isn't any other way to get a fix, Brooks doesn't seem to enjoy killing. He describes it a couple of times as "fun", but there isn't any hint of that in his cold, emotionless face -- just a quick orgasmic release once the act is done. No attempt is made at explaining why Mr. Brooks is driven to weepy monologues or bursts of tidy exposition to piece it all together. He just is a serial killer, and the fact that he's so cold and detached about it makes him a much more intriguing character than the dime-a-dozen nutjobs that litter most thrillers.

The other standout is Marshall, the snickering devil-on-the-shoulder played by William Hurt. His performance is over-the-top, sure, but it works in its own way. Externalizing inner demons this sort of way isn't exactly blazing new ground, but the way Mr. Brooks approaches it feels fresh to me. Marshall isn't just there to egg him whisper "do it!" in Brooks' ear. The two of them have conversations, regardless of whether or not anyone else is in the room. Marshall can see straight through other people's bullshit, and he can pick up on things that go unseen by Brooks. He's an essential part of what makes Brooks such an effective serial killer, and I'm curious how much of Brooks' success as a businessman and even a husband is owned to Marshall.

At least to my eyes, Mr. Brooks's biggest downside is that Marshall aside, everyone in the movie plays it too dour and icily detached. That's deliberate, I know, but too much of Mr. Brooks isn't propelled by any sort of energy, leaving the lengthy setup of the first half of the movie feeling glacially slow. I warmed up to Mr. Brooks once the second act was well underway, but there's a much stronger 100 minute movie struggling to claw its way out of this two hour flick. As much as the camp lover in me was fascinated by the oddball plot twists, and as much as I was taken in by its fairly inventive approach to what makes a serial killer tick, I'd probably be more likely to say that Mr. Brooks is a movie I appreciate more than really enjoy. Probably best suited to a rental, but hesitantly Recommended.

Video: Mr. Brooks has a very deliberate visual style, and although this 1.85:1, AVC-encoded presentation is technically sound, it's not quite the sort of showcase material expected from a shiny new Blu-ray disc. Readers who frown at stylized palettes will find plenty to grouse about here; Mr. Brooks' colors are subdued and often bathed in a light blueish-green. Black levels and contrast are erratic, rendered surprisingly weakly in many of the movie's more dimly-lit sequences. The image is sharp but not brimming with fine detail, hovering somewhere closer to average as opposed to the startlingly detailed discs I'm used to seeing when a recent theatrical release makes its bow on Blu-ray. On the upside, the source material is pristine, and the healthy bitrate of the AVC encode leaves the thin veil of grain present throughout much of Mr. Brooks appearing natural and film-like. To be sure, Mr. Brooks is a nice looking Blu-ray disc, but prospective viewers should go in knowing that this is a stylized movie shot outside the studio system and not glossy, high-definition eye candy.

Audio: I'm not especially keen on Fox and MGM's insistence on using DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks when there are much more widely supported alternatives on hand, but the core of this 5.1 lossless track on Mr. Brooks comes through extremely well. Admittedly, the sound design is somewhat tame, reserving the rears largely for ambiance, although this is in keeping with the movie's quiet emphasis on dialogue and characterization. The mix can get incredibly bombastic in its handful of more action-oriented sequences, though. The throbbing electronic score is backed by a hellish amount of bass, rattling everything in the room, and I don't think I've ever heard a movie with gunshots this loud or percussive. The gunfire is loud enough to be borderline-obnoxious, really, but I don't have enough of a point of reference to say if this leans closer to reality or not. Clarity and detail are both strong, and Mr. Brooks's dialogue is balanced perfectly in the mix. I wouldn't have minded a more aggressive use of the surround channels, but Mr. Brooks sounds great on Blu-ray, and I don't have any complaints about the work Fox and MGM have put into this release.

This disc also includes a Dolby Digital 5.1 track in Spanish along with subtitle streams in English and Spanish.

Extras: Exclusive to this Blu-ray disc is a subtitle trivia track about serial killers, occasionally using Mr. Brooks as a springboard to note what makes them tick. The rest of the extras are carried over from the DVD release.

Mr. Brooks' three featurettes are presented at 1080p, but they look like they've been upscaled from standard definition to my eyes, especially the occasionally soft, pixelated interview footage. The seven and a half minute "Birth of a Serial Killer" touches on the writing of the screenplay, opening by noting that the project was borne out of a desire to break its pair of screenwriters out of the family-friendly cinema mold. It also delves through the process of starting with a beginning and an end and, from there, discovering what lurks in between. "On the Set" is meatier than your average EPK making-of featurette, although the structure's still fairly traditional, spending much of its ten minute runtime giving the key cast and crew a chance to rattle off a few quick comments about Mr. Brooks in between a steady stream of short clips from the film. It does give a nice overview of how the movie was made outside of the studio system, but the audio commentary offers a much stronger sense of what the shoot was like and what struggles they had to overcome shooting in Shreveport, Louisiana. The last of the featurettes is "Murder in Their Minds" (9 min.), a brief peek into the psychology behind Mr. Brooks, Marshall, and Mr. Smith.

Clocking in just over six minutes in length, the short reel of deleted scenes includes an alternate intro, a "...the hell?" subplot with Detective Atwood carousing with a male hooker, and Atwood discovering another clue at the crime scene that Mr. Brooks had neglected to wipe away. This last one is somewhat of a disappointing omission since it would've better woven one of Brooks' other stated passions into the plot and might have made it more likely that Atwood would've uncovered his identity. All of this additional footage is letterboxed in standard definition and non-anamorphic widescreen.

Also included is an audio commentary with director Bruce Evans and his co-writer Raynold Gideon. It's one of those affable, upbeat tracks where the two of them continually gush about how wonderful everyone and everything was, but there's enough substance mixed in with the self-congratulatory backpatting to make it worth a listen. It's certainly not a meticulously technical commentary. Evans and Gideon are most keen on rattling off the many speedbumps they plowed into while making an independent movie in Shreveport, from cramped sets to clunky cemetary locks to passing off a Hummer H3 factory as the floor for Brooks' box business. Casting and the writing process are frequent topics in the earlier stretches of the commentary, including the rest of the cast falling together once Kevin Costner had finally been attached, trying to strike the right balance in conducting research without getting hamstrung by it, and shooting Mr. Brooks outside the studio system to maintain as much autonomy and creative control as possible. It's also noted that Mr. Brooks is the first part of a potential trilogy, although there aren't any hints as to what future installments might offer, assuming the DVD and Blu-ray releases move enough copies to justify a follow-up.

Also included are several high definition trailers -- Rescue Dawn, Live Free or Die Hard, Home of the Brave, and, of course, Mr. Brooks. Rescue Dawn is encoded in high-def, but clarity and detail are poor enough that I hope it's just an upconvert.

Conclusion: Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon veer away from the stale thriller formulas in Mr. Brooks, making it more about the psychology of a murderer -- about a man with a healthy, well-balanced life who's quietly compelled to kill -- rather than an excuse to string together a bunch of the usual thriller theatrics. Mr. Brooks isn't a great movie, no, but it's intriguing enough to be worth seeing at least once. Recommended.

The images scattered around this review are promotional stills and aren't meant to represent the way the movie looks in high definition.
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