Directed by: Bruce A. Evans
Starring: Kevin Costner, Demi Moore, William Hurt, Dane Cook, Marg Helgenberger
Bruce A. Evans’ Mr. Brooks is about one half of something close to a great film that spirals out of control to become a wildly enjoyable compendium of the utterly preposterous, topped off with a rancid maraschino-cherry’s worth of unsatisfying, sub-De Palma shock coda (think: Carrie, Dressed to Kill et al).
The basic premise is brilliantly established. Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is an upright—even uptight—businessman of the most boring kind (he heads up a company that manufactures boxes). As the film opens, he’s receiving a Man of the Year award for his philanthropic work in the community, but on his way home with his equally upright wife, Emma (Marg Helgenberger, TV’s C.S.I.), he finds himself suddenly joined by Marshall (William Hurt), his creepy imaginary friend. Actually, Marshall is more than just creepy—he’s Brooks’ homicidal alter ego, the force that prompts Brooks to be a serial killer. Brooks has kept Marshall at bay for two years, but resistance to his blandishments for further killings has worn thin. In fact, it’s soon revealed that Brooks has been selecting his next victims for some time, and it takes very little for Marshall to persuade him to go out on the prowl once more. (Brooks thinks of it in terms of “one last time”; Marshall knows better.)
This part of the film is fine—more than fine in some ways. The surprising chemistry between Costner and Hurt helps immensely, as does the screenplay’s ability to develop—or reveal—the complexity of their relationship throughout the film. Even some of the more dubious ideas are held in check by their relationship’s complexity and the interplay of the actors. And some of the dubious ideas are pretty darn dubious, ranging from Demi Moore’s Detective Tracy Atwood (the cop with a $60-million bank account) to Brooks attempting to stave off his craving for killing by latching onto Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12-step program. (That anyone would attempt the AA business with a straight face after Don Mancini mercilessly and hysterically parodied the exact same concept in his 2004 film Seed of Chucky is astonishing to the point of madness. That Costner and Hurt manage to make it at least almost work is nigh on to miraculous.) And these segments surface before the film goes haywire in the credibility department.
The film’s coolness—even blandness—concerning the business of being a serial killer also helps to imbue the proceedings with a sense of dreadful creepiness by virtue of its very business-like, casual attitude. The first killing is masterfully staged, not in the least because of what it implies Brooks gets out of it, and the way the film wisely leaves offscreen the more peculiar business of what he does with the bodies of his victims. Then there’s the introduction of a witness—and photography enthusiast—to the murder, Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), who quickly transcends his plot-device status when it becomes clear that Smith wants neither justice, nor traditional blackmail, but lessons in the “art” of serial killing. He wants to feel an intensified version of the rush he felt when he accidentally saw the killings.
At this point, Mr. Brooks starts to wander into the realm of social commentary, suggesting a kind of sociopathic behavior born of a numbing of the human condition. The film suggests that Smith is the logical outgrowth of a desensitized society. This is where the film attempts to be something more than a thriller, but it’s undermined by the fact that Evans and his writing partner, Raynold Gideon, don’t know how to develop it. Beyond the fact that Smith is a voyeur who chanced upon this murder, he’s given no character, and as a result, whatever social comment the film might be attempting is left to futile speculation. Still, the film gets points simply for raising the question.
There’s nothing really wrong with the film’s added plot that reveals that Brooks’ daughter, Jane (Danielle Panabaker, TV’s Shark), has inherited daddy’s homicidal streak—except for the fact that it starts to overload an already overcomplicated narrative. It supplies the film with a variant on the themes hinted at with the Smith character, and allows for some clever “moralizing” between Brooks and Marshall, both of whom seem as much disturbed by her amateurishness as they are by her murderous activities. Unfortunately, this is also where Mr. Brooks starts going off the rails as anything like a serious film.
By the time Brooks decides to protect Jane and transforms into Mr. Brooks, Master of Disguise, all credibility goes out the window—something that’s only exacerbated by the jaw-dropping convolutions concerning Detective Atwood’s personal life, Smith’s plans, an escaped serial killer out to get Atwood, Brooks’ apparent death wish etc. The way in which all this is tied together is undeniably clever—and it’s entertaining—but it’s also remarkably silly, and it causes the film’s deeper side to get lost in the absurdity. At the film’s ending, the only thing holding together is the relationship between Brooks and Marshall. That’s enough to keep Mr. Brooks from completely imploding, but only barely. Rated R for strong bloody violence, some graphic sexual content, nudity and language.