'Mr. Brooks': Kevin Costner Will Slay You

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 1, 2007

Our Mr. Brooks seems to have everything: a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, a flourishing career, a house fit for the cover of Architectural Digest and some nourishing hobbies. He likes to make ceramic pots and kill people.

He likes to shoot them in the face, then pose them provocatively. Very creative, our Mr. Brooks, yet at the same time quite thorough, and as the Thumbprint Killer, he has been driving the Portland cops mad for years. And when I tell you he's played by Kevin Costner, don't your teeth just want to fall out?

The movie "Mr. Brooks" features Costner at his most unlikely: as a suave, assured, in-control, morally repugnant psycho killer. The movie is a lot like the character Costner plays: suave, assured, in-control and morally repugnant. You have to make peace with the idea that the film asks you to empathize with an executioner on the grounds of his style and to select him over another, much less couth wannabe (but as yet unblooded) killer. Can you do that? If you can't, best stay far away.

Costner's Earl Brooks owns a box factory that he rules with benevolent despotism in the coastal Oregon city. How can you hate a guy who wears a bow tie and dresses like a professor of medieval poetry at the Yale of the '50s? He's just been named the chamber of commerce man of the year and accepts the award with grace and charm and heads back to the 'burbs to, one assumes, celebrate with the wife (Marg Helgenberger, definitely a woman with whom most men would like to celebrate). But Marshall, the gentleman in the back seat, has other ideas. Speaking seductively into his ear, Marshall (the oozing, cooing William Hurt) tells Brooks he's earned a little fun. After all, it's been two years.

That is, two years since the Thumbprint Killer has given himself a little treat.

And so on this night, we stay with him from start to very violent -- disturbingly violent, point-blank violent -- end. Marshall is actually Mr. Brooks's bad alter ego, a device by which the screenwriting partnership of Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans (who also directed) explore the dynamics of Brooks's mind. Frequently the two will chat while the excluded outsider doesn't have a clue; it looks funny and demands a willing suspension of disbelief, and again, if you can't deal with that, go elsewhere. (The device is somewhat similar to Ron Howard's trick in "A Beautiful Mind.")

From the interplay between Marshall and Earl, we learn that Mr. Brooks considers himself an addict, drawn to murder yet loathing himself for it, and working desperately to recover. He even goes to AA -- he's a blood drunk -- where he is kind and nurturing to all, and yet can't stop shooting people in the head as an expression of his need to meticulously display his control. He never makes a mistake until, obviously, this time.

On the last killing, Mr. Brooks forgets to check the curtains. They are open, as the couple involved got some kind of kick out of making love in quasi-public (each of Mr. Brooks's victims, over the course of the movie, will have some sort of vulgarity that will qualify him or her for elimination). So who should show up at the box factory the next day but a sleazy young man with a smirk, an Army fatigue jacket and a beard (Dane Cook, eschewing comedy) and a set of photographs of Brooks looking out the window, the bodies in the background. Does he want money? No, that would be ordinary, and one of the pleasures of the movie is how it adroitly plays with, then avoids, the ordinary. What Mr. Smith wants is kicks; he wants to come along. He wants to be a buddy.

So that's the first wrinkle. Wait, no, it's the third wrinkle. The first wrinkle is the discovery that Costner is playing the better half of Mr. Brooks and the second wrinkle is that the usually benevolent Hurt is playing the worse half. The fourth wrinkle, I suppose, is that Cook isn't supposed to be funny but scurvy. Or maybe that's the fifth wrinkle, with the fourth wrinkle being the discovery that Demi Moore doesn't play the wife but the cop. Then the sixth wrinkle -- or fifth, moving five back to six -- is that the cop is rich: She's worth $60 mil. She's in it for the sense of her own mastery.

Well, as you can tell, the movie is flawed, alas, by what might be called wrinkle madness. Twists, twists, twists, oh my God, it's the frozen head of Adolf Hitler!, that sort of thing. It has more wrinkles than my face. It's all wrinkly. Has it been in the bath too long? Is it a raisin, an old baseball glove, the sheets after a nightmare? And I haven't even hinted at the wrinkle about the daughter.

In the end, the wrinkles and the smooth stylings of director Evans, who sets the movie inside a perfect haute bourgeoisie world, seem constantly at war. I'm still trying to figure out whose body comes falling out of the ceiling at about the three-quarters point. A lot of the movie has to do with computer connections: When we see whom Mr. Brooks is investigating, we know whom he's stalking and the plot is supposed to instantly clarify. But in truth, I missed much of that.

What's compelling, then, isn't the overwrought plot but the simpler things: the dynamics between the actors, the avuncularity between old pros Costner and Hurt, the class condescension between Costner and Cook, and Moore's exasperated rich girl in comfortable shoes with a 9mm pistol on her hip. It has a fascinatin' rhythm.

Mr. Brooks (120 minutes at area theaters) is rated R for bloody, grisly violence, graphic sexual content, nudity and profanity.

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