Sunday, June 03, 2007

REVIEW: Mr. Brooks

Minor Spoilers

Popular culture has been full of fictional serial-killers that we "like" since before the term "serial-killer" technically existed, everything from penny-dreadfuls to early B-movies were chock full of perversely-fascinating heavies doing their wicked deeds for our vicarious enjoyment. Implicit in this was a certain moral trade-off: We would 'enjoy' the fun of temporarily inhabiting the psyche of a monster so long as we never fully lost sight of the MONSTER part. We allow ourselves to "like" Hannibal Lecter, for example, because he's slick and clever and interesting... but he's not "likable." He's a prick, a snobby elitist who's cannibalism M.O. (in the macro sense) is basically just WASPy Social Darwinism carried to a ridiculous extreme. Likewise, Freddy Krueger's engaging "hack comedian" persona comes hitched to his "child murderer" background, Patrick "American Psycho" Bateman is ALSO a Wall Street creep, etc.

"Mr. Brooks," however, is trying something completely different - setting up both as it's star AND audience-perspective character a titular murderer who's not only able-to-be-liked... he's actually LIKABLE. Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a self-made white-collar CEO, living a happy life in the Midwestern suburbs. He's a faithful, genuinely-loving husband, a profoundly understanding father, an honest businessman and all around super guy: Charming and sophisticated but also human and approachable. He's got no temper, deals with everything reasonably, never raises his voice in anger and doesn't even seem to know any curse words. There's literally nothing wrong with Earl Brooks...

...with the noteworthy exception that Earl Brooks is ALSO the "Thumbprint Killer," an as-of-yet uncaptured serial-slayer who likes to gun down copulating couples in their homes, pose and photograph the bodies and then vanish with such alarming precision that forensics teams joke about the victims being "killed by a ghost." Brooks is "accompanied" on his excursions by a prodding imaginary friend named Marshall (William Hurt,) but this is no actions-excusing "schizophrenic" cop-out: Brooks is totally aware of his actions and in full control, while Marshall functions primarily as a sort of "anti-conscience" egging Brooks on toward decisions he's eventually going to make anyway.

Brooks regards his "murder habit" as an addiction, one he's ashamed of and recently been trying to kick by half-truthing his way through AA meetings (how nice of a guy is Mr. Brooks? He not only goes to the meetings, he volunteers to help clean up afterwards.) The attempt at cold-turkey gets sidetracked, though, by an unfortunate confluence of events: A self-styled "supercop" (a shockingly-bearable Demi Moore) is on the hunt for "Thumbprint" and seems VERY capable of actually catching him, the Brooks' daughter has just dropped out of college and arrived home carrying some unpleasant secrets (one easy to guess, the others... not so much,) and most-pressingly: A sleazy voyeur (Dane Cook, his easy-to-despise nature HELPING for a change) has snapped some photos of Brooks in the act of murder and is actively blackmailing him - but not for money, he wants Brooks to mentor him in the fine art of human-hunting.

Oh, and Moore's policewoman comes with almost a whole other movie's worth of subplots unto herself: Her cretin ex-husband is legally harassing her and another serial killer aside from Brooks just broke out of prison on a mission to hunt her down (there may or may not be a third killer roaming around as well... but that would be telling.)

All this would seem to make "Mr. Brooks" yet another Summer-of-07 movie suffering from gratuitous plot-bloat, until it settles into it's deliberately-paced groove and reveals itself more akin to an elaborate timepiece: After carefully setting up Earl Brooks' seemingly ninja-level skills as a stealth serial-murderer and impenetrable likability as.. well, everything ELSE, it drops him deliberately into a twisting, booby-trapped maze of a plot - and not only will we get to see if Brooks The Killer is super-slick enough to escape, we'll also get the slightly naughty thrill of rooting for Brooks The SuperDad to succeed.

There's a really, really strange alchemy going on here, mixing a very "movie-world" handful of supervillian slayers, "Lifetime"-ish family drama and even a little tuff-chick-cop B-movie riffing thrown in for good measure; and the whole enterprise is hinging on Costner's central performance. Lucky for us, he nails it, tweaking his natural All-American "ordinary-ness" just enough to turn Earl Brooks into easily one of the best acting turns of his career. Less experienced (or maybe just less disciplined) actors would likely take this as a chance to go over the top, or indulge in schticky "evil suburban stiff" silliness, but Costner plays it straight and subtle: Brooks is interesting because he's not interesting. He owns a box factory. His big non-murder hobby? Pottery. Even as a serial-killer, he's strictly vanilla: No fancy weapon, no symbolism-laden mask, he's just a plain ol' shooter (though thanks to Costner's sharp senses as a physical actor, Brooks ends up looking as cool as one can possibly look with a plastic-bag zip-tied over one's pistol-hand.)

What we've got here is a sicko slasher premise plotted-out in the manner of a off-beat "grownup" drama, like the movie equivalent of a "Slipknot" lyric sheet that somehow wound up being recorded by James Taylor instead. Hell, to carry the music analogy even further, it reminds me of the innevitable moment when a metal band jumps the shark by bringing in a symphony orchestra: Yeah, we all know it's the height of silliness.. but on the other hand, "November Rain" is a pretty good song. In the end, it boils down to campy sleight-of-hand, but it wrings it's premise and it's cast for every drop their worth and comes up with something that's tremendously watchable and even marvelous at points, with an abundance of satisfying moments and at least one "HOLY SHITBALLS!!!!" shocker.

How much plainer can I be, folks? GO SEE THIS MOVIE.