In this ogre-ridden, ocean-going summer of sequels, “Mr. Brooks” reps a classic case of counter-programming. Original, adult and starring Kevin Costner as a serial killer, this suspense thriller with a smirk may not break any B.O. records, but it should provide discriminating audiences the antidote they seek to Clooneys-and-Caribbean fever, while giving Costner’s career a considerable kick in the credibility department.
Costner’s mere presence in this noirish Bruce A. Evans-helmed psycho-drama — which Costner also produced, with longtime partner Jim Wilson and co-writer Raynold Gideon — is an attention grabber. Although one of the actor’s best performances was as murderer Butch Haynes in Clint Eastwood’s “A Perfect World,” “Mr. Brooks” takes a tongue-in-cheek attitude toward murder and portrays its serial killer as an addicted personality, who tries 12-stepping his way to a less-murderous lifestyle.
It would have been an entirely different movie with a more conventional star — Anthony Hopkins springs to mind (as does “Silence of the Lambs”). But Costner delivers a complex cocktail of aloofness, insecurity and reluctant threat, which makes a novel script into something even more unusual.
Add Demi Moore as the detective on the killer’s trail — another case of mid-career adjustment — and “Mr. Brooks” becomes as much about perception as it is a peculiar take on reality. By all appearances, Earl Brooks is a pillar of his community. He even receives Man of the Year honors from an unnamed group in his unnamed city, as his wife, Emma (Marg Helgenberger) looks on adoringly. What none of the town folk–including Emma–know is that Earl has been murdering people for years — expertly, strategically, cold-bloodedly.
Although he’s been keeping his homicidal demons at bay by attending AA meetings, his conscience — which has a name, Marshall, and is played by William Hurt — is prodding him to break his tenuous self-imposed sobriety and spill fresh blood.
Enter the subplots: Tracy Atwood (Moore) is a predictably hard-as-nails detective who lost the so-called “Thumbprint Killer’s” trail two years earlier and has other things on her mind — for one, a gold digging, soon-to-be-ex-husband (Jason Lewis).
Earl, too, has tangential concerns: A daughter (Danielle Panabaker), who may or may not have inherited his serial-killer gene (the science of “Mr. Brooks” may leave some viewers bewildered). And once he falls off the wagon, killing a pair of dancers in their uncurtained bedroom, Mr. Brooks acquires a kind of apprentice, Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), who saw what Earl did and wants to go along for the thrill ride.
There are also a pair of crystal-meth freaks out to avenge themselves on Tracy, which provides the film its few shoot-’em-up moments and a car crash or two.
But “Mr. Brooks” is most effective when it’s dealing with Earl and his conscience. Hurt and Costner are terrific together as two sides of the same personality and, again, the casting is what it’s all about. Marshall could have been portrayed as a grotesque monster, but instead, he’s a very close complement to Earl — similar in age, temperament and physique.
John Lindley’s subtle cinematography superbly delivers a morally dark film. Production values in general are topnotch.