The face that a person chooses to show the outside world is not always the one that signifies who they really are. The reasons for shielding the whole truth are countlessout of insecurity; to protect a loved one from disappointment; to protect one's own self from getting hurt, the list goes on. For Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner), the reason that he is one person around his family and colleagues, and another behind closed doors and in shadows, encompasses all of the above. The secrets he shields from the world are far from mundane, however; he is a seasoned serial killer, addicted to the act of murder and not strong enough to talk mental alter ego Marshall (William Hurt) out of the crimes he insists they commit.
A fascinating and thoroughly unsettling psychological exploration into the mind of a serial killer, "Mr. Brooks" could well be the smartest, most astute thriller of its kind in several years, ranking up there alongside 2003's "Monster
" and 1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley
." The film is rich in layered character work, is leisurely paced but intoxicatingly directed by Bruce A. Evans (1992's little-seen "Kuffs"), and offers a close to seamless plot that uncovers unforeseeable surprise upon unforeseeable surprise in a startlingly assured and non-manipulative fashion. Writer-director Evans and co-writer Raynold Gideon refuse to play by any sort of conventional rules; the story they tell is straightforward, yet dodges expectations by digging into an unremittingly dark territory that reveals just how glossy and prefabricated the majority of A-list studio thrillers are these days. In many respects, "Mr. Brooks" has a subtler, more provocative foreign sensibility, and the unshakable outcome is all the better for it.
Mr. Earl Brooks is a wealthy and successful Oregon-based businessman, a loving husband to wife Emma (Marg Helgenberger), and a doting father to college-aged daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker). What no one knows is that he is also a brilliant sociopath and cold-blooded murderer known as "The Thumbprint Killer." After managing to keep his psychotic tendencies in check for a couple years, his increasing bloodlust leads him to claim the lives of two new victims. Meticulous in disposing of all possible evidence, he has continuously eluded and baffled the law. All of that is suddenly threatened by the appearance of Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), who snapped incriminating shots of Mr. Brooks at the crime scene from his apartment next door and is threatening to go to the police if his demands aren't met. Mr. Smith's blackmail isn't based on monetary desires, though; he wants Mr. Brooks to take him under his wing and show him the ropes of serial murder.
One of the countless pleasures of "Mr. Brooks" is its air of mystery and lack of predictability as all the puzzle pieces of the plot are set up and then, one by one, fall effortlessly into place. Unlike most thrillers, where one can either foresee exactly where everything is going from the start or are knowledgeably jerked around by a story that relies upon rather than is supported by a twist ending, it is never clear what direction "Mr. Brooks" is going to turn at any given moment. This element of fresh discovery invigorates and sharpens the proceedings. Director Bruce A. Evans does not condescend to the viewer or offer easy answers, but presents a more challenging narrative that does an expert job of choosing when to present harsh onscreen violence and when to hold back, trusting that the implication of such is occasionally far more powerful and frightening.
The film's ratcheting impact is complimented by an ensemble of interesting, complicated and believable characters. In a career-revitalizing performance that is a full 180-degree turn from what one has come to expect from the veteran actor, Kevin Costner (2006's "The Guardian
") is chilling as Mr. Brooks. Understated and simmering below the surface with a propensity for the unthinkable, Costner doesn't hit a single false note as he essays a man who wants to be the perfect family man and model citizen, but is overwhelmed by a murderous addiction that can only be satiated by the crimes he commits. As alter ego Marshall, a symbolic figment of his fractured state of mind, William Hurt (2005's "A History of Violence
") has an understandably tricky task. Marshall isn't realonly Mr. Brooks can see himbut just as a nagging thought can eat away at a person's conscience, Hurt successfully embodies a distinct under-the-skin feeling of unease.
In an auspicious turn that should silence the naysayers who peg him as a one-trick pony, comic-turned-actor Dane Cook (2006's "Employee of the Month
") is excellent in his first dramatic role as the enigmatic Mr. Smith. Cook's range is nothing short of amazing as he disappears into his creepy character, a man whose own homicidal impulses are unleashed after spying on the initial slayings from his apartment window. At first it would appear that it is all just a game to him, but as Mr. Brooks drives him around and tells him to randomly choose his target, it becomes clear that Mr. Smith isn't joking around. The sequences between Costner and Cook are the best in the filmeerie, uncomfortable, and utterly disquieting.
As Detective Tracy Atwood, who spots the return of "The Thumbprint Killer" and vows to catch him this time, Demi Moore (2006's "Bobby
") makes a welcome return to a leading role after several years of laying relatively low. Moore's Tracy could have been a thankless character in lesser hands, but she is developed into a multifaceted person whose troubled past and current stake in solving the case unknowingly lead her to becoming an indirect target. As Jane Brooks, Danielle Panabaker (2005's "Sky High
") is engaging at the start and then moves, along with her character, into an unexpectedly grittier place that should be left for viewers to discover on their own. Of the central players, the least fully written is Mr. Brooks' trusting wife Emma. Marg Helgenberger (2004's "In Good Company
") is fine with what she is given, but her character disappears for too-long stretches that leave one questioning where she is and why she doesn't draw suspicions to her husband's whereabouts during all hours of the night.
In a year in which, thus far, countless remakes and sequels have ruled the roost, "Mr. Brooks" arrives just in the nick of time as an original, taut and intelligent respite. A thriller that stirs in your memory long after it is over, the movie makes you think just as much as it raises the tension level and palatably unnerves. With hints of classic Brian De Palma style swirling aboutthe premise somewhat reminds, in a good way, of 1992's "Raising Cain""Mr. Brooks" is crisp, riveting, uncompromising motion picture craftsmanship done right. If there is any justice, this is one bull's-eye sleeper that won't get lost amidst a season of big summer blockbusters and mindless popcorn fare.