Mr. Brooks

MGM, 2007


Popular fiction is beginning to fill up with stories about morally complex serial killers. Dexter Morgan, the subject of increasingly disturbing books by Jeff Lindsay, which have been adapted to a successful series on cable television, only kills people he knows to be murderers, usually ones who have escaped the sanctions of the law. He behaves this way because of the "Code" taught him by his adopted father, a police officer, who recognized Dexter's inclinations as a child and wished to channel them in a way that would preserve Dexter from trouble and serve a socially useful purpose. On television, however, Dexter's propensities have been cleaned up a bit. In the books he is a sadist who likes to dismember his victims, while on television he kills them quickly and only dismembers their bodies for disposal. Nevertheless, the occasional dilemmas arise, where Dexter has difficulty dealing with criminals who have not yet risen to the level of murder, or is in some danger of being found out himself. And, of course, there is the problem that Dexter as an avenging angel is subject to the same objections as to real world systems of justice:  the possibility of error, the cruelty of death by torture, the lack of appeal, etc.

While Dexter attempts to preserve moral clarity, Hannibal Lecter, in the books by Thomas Harris, which have now been turned into several movies, has no such purpose. In his practice, murder is an art, both in itself and in its products -- haute cuisine practiced on the body parts of the victims -- while the victims may be those who offend Lecter's aesthetics or sense of manners, e.g. poor musicians, or whom it is simply expedient for Lecter to kill. Curiously, as the series of books progresses, Lecter becomes their hero, converting FBI agent Clarice Starling to his way of life. The movie of Hannibal [2001] shied away from this development in the 1999 book, but not before scaring off director Jonathan Demme and actress Jodie Foster, who had both won Oscars for the movie Silence of the Lambs [1991]. The daemonic Lecter thus has converted Harris to his own moral aestheticism. The picture we get is that the system of justice active through the FBI, and to which Clarice had devoted her life, was simply a mask of opportunism, careerism, and hypocrisy for people with no interest in justice at all. Of course, while this may discredit the institution, it does not discredit justice as such, which is the problem with Harris' story. Was this really enough to make Clarice a Nietzschean to whom only the aesthetic is real? It does not sound like Jodie Foster thought so.

In Mr. Brooks we have a serial killer who is very different from either Dexter Morgan or Hannibal Lecter. Earl Brooks, marvelously played by Kevin Costner, kills because it is an addiction, something that he does enjoy, but about which he suffers much remorse. As the movie opens, he has not committed a murder in several years; and although he does so in short order, he is determined to beat his addition, for which he actually attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings -- leaving the nature of his addiction rather vague, as we might expect, for the other participants.

The pain of Mr. Brooks' remorse and his struggle to control his homicidal nature is something that we do not see in Dexter Morgan or Hannibal Lecter. But, as with Dexter's "Dark Passenger," Mr. Brooks is not alone in this problem. There is a presence, an imaginary friend, with whom Mr. Brooks converses. This is "Marshall," played by the brilliant William Hurt. Marshall is the voice of Mr. Brooks' desire to kill and steadily urges him to do so.

When it comes to the actual killing, Mr. Brooks is more in the aesthetic camp of Hannibal Lecter than in the retributive justice business of Dexter. He is not cruel but swift. He chooses beautiful lovers, like the "Dance Couple" at the beginning of the movie. Once they are dead, he arranges them in romantic and intimate poses and takes pictures. He knows that it would be foolish to keep these pictures, of course, so he destroys them after the evening's activities.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brooks is a wealthy and successful industrialist, with a loving wife Emma (Marge Helgenberger) and daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker). The latter, however, is away at school, at Sanford. His life is supposedly in Portland, Oregon, although the entire movie, except for some establishing shots, was filmed in Shreveport, Louisiana (where the shoot was mercifully in the winter rather than the summer). As the movie begins, Mr. Brooks has been made "Man of the Year" by some civic organization in Portland. But he is struggling with the plans he has already made to kill the "Dance Couple." He fights his urges with prayer, although he does not seem to have surrendered himself to the "Higher Power" that is part of AA's Twelve Step Program. Marshall wins the struggle.

Mr. Brooks has an excuse to leave the house. He works on pottery in a detached structure, whose kiln is conveniently available to incinerate photos, clothing, and other potential evidence. His wife doesn't seem troubled that he is out there for several hours, probably with not much in the way of ceramic results to show for it. If there is some understanding that she will not disturb him ("What are those pictures you've got there, honey?"), we do not hear about it.

Two problems drive the movie. One is that the "Dance Couple" make love with their curtains open. The neighbors watch. One of the neighbors therefore sees the murders. This is Mr. Baffert (Dane Cook), who recognizes Mr. Brooks from the news and, instead of calling the police, turns up at his work and requests to participate in the next killing. He took his own photos, so he is in a position to blackmail Mr. Brooks.

Since Mr. Brooks doesn't want to kill again, this is an unwelcome proposition, but difficult -- to Marshall's amusement -- to reject. The whole business makes him more vulnerable than usual to the excellent police detective Tracy Atwood who has been pursuing his M.O., marvelously played by Demi Moore. Moore questions Mr. Baffert and suspects something is going on with him.

Meanwhile, Detective Atwood has her own problems. She is wealthy and has an estranged, predatory husband suing her for an expensive divorce settlement. She is also pursued by an escaped con who has vowed to kill her. In a deleted scene she gets much closer to Mr. Brooks than we see in the finished movie:  he has tracked some pottery clay to the crime scene and it is identified as such. Later she asks Mr. Baffert if pottery is his hobby. Since his hobby is photography, we are left in the final cut of the film with the impression that she has picked this up psychically about Mr. Brooks. Perhaps that is more threatening than if she simply had the physical evidence.

The second problem that arises for Mr. Brooks is with his daughter. She returns home from school, announces that she has dropped out, but somehow has failed to return with her expensive car. Marshall suspects something serious is afoot. When she announces that she is pregnant, this may be it; but Marshall thinks there is something more. Indeed. The police show up. There has been a murder at Stanford, and some kind of evidence, we know not what, may tie Mr. Brooks' daughter to the crime.

This is what Mr. Brooks has always feared. The Bad Seed. His daughter has the same urge to kill that he does. Now he is almost undone by his remorse. What is best for Jane? He and Marshall both think that things would be better if she is apprehended and jailed. Of course, Mr. Brooks' own remorse has apparently not suggested to him that things would be better (certainly for future Dance Couples) if he were apprehended and jailed. In the end, he travels, in disguise, to Stanford and commits a copy-cat murder to deflect suspicion away from Jane. Marshall is not happy about that, which is curious. Killing innocent couples for fun is all right, but killing an innocent stranger to protect Jane isn't? Mr. Brooks also finds this troubling. It is so troubling, that he conceives the idea of having Mr. Baffert kill him, which would simplify everyone's lives considerably.

Meanwhile, Mr. Brooks has by chance spotted the escaped con who is pursuing (and at one point briefly captures) Detective Atwood. This leads him to putt off the killing that he had planned with Mr. Baffert -- to Mr. Baffert's ill humored chagrin. We begin to wonder if Baffert will betray him -- even as Atwood becomes more suspcious of Baffert. There is little about Baffert that we like.

In the denouement of the movie, all the plotlines come together. Mr. Brooks sets up Detective Atwood with clues about Mr. Baffert which nevertheless lead to the escaped con. A nice shootout ensues, and the wounded con kills himself and his girlfriend. Meanwhile, Mr. Brooks, with Baffert along, has killed Atwood's estranged husband and his sleasy lawyer. He then takes Baffert to a cemetery (which he owns) so that Baffert can kill him and leave him concealed in a grave. But he changes his mind. Baffert ends up in the grave, and Detective Atwood, to general acclaim (in USA Today), is left with the vanished Baffert as her serial killer suspect.

The pregnant Jane is now safe from everything except her own homicidal drives, which Mr. Brooks dreams are directed at him. We still don't know if Jane will go through with the pregnancy. And, as it happens, Mr. Brooks has prevented other loose ends from being tied up completely. He telephones Detective Atwood on a stolen cell phone. He wants to know why she, with no need of money, is a cop. Just as when he stood in the open window at the crime scene, and was photographed by Mr. Baffert, Mr. Brooks seems to have an unconscious desire to get caught. Detective Atwood does not believe that it was Mr. Baffert who called her. She (with her partner) has heard Mr. Brooks' voice.

The writers of Mr. Brooks, Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, say that they envisioned a trilogy of movies. The modest boxoffice may not justify such a thing. But we do wonder what will happen with Mr. Brooks, Jane, and Detective Atwood. As it is, Mr. Brooks must continue to struggle with his demon (Marshall) and fear that Jane will be overcome by her own.

I have found Mr. Brooks engrossing and have watched it many times. I have wondered what it's appeal is to me. Earl Brooks is closer to being a "normal" human being than Dexter Morgan or Hannibal Lecter. He has a conscience. He understands the crimes that he commits and would rather not do them. He is not, to be sure, willing to surrender himself to the authories and confess, and so morally he cannot avoid a certain kind of bad faith, but he would rather not be what he is -- and certainly does not want Jane to be as she is.

It may be that many people live with things that they regret and that cannot be made good but that they would rather put behind them and forget. They can always reflect that their exposure would not make any difference anyway; and sometimes they may be right. Thus, what it looks like to me is that Mr. Brooks may come closer to a representation of the human condition than what we find with Dexter Morgan or, to be sure, Hannibal Lecter. Evans and Gideon said they wanted to write about a certain kind of addiction. Perhaps it is -- hopefully is -- an unusual kind of addiction, but it is the kind of problem that troubles many otherwise normal people. Mr. Brooks will never be alone at AA.

But Mr. Brooks also has Marshall. Is he insane? Is there a multiple personality here? Mr. Brooks wears glasses, but we notice that when he sets out to kill, he doesn't need them. He is somehow physically different as a killer, which is part of the lore, if not the science, of multiple personalities. If he is really dealing with a mental illness, this arouses our sympathy. Much else about him does so also. He is troubled by conscience and remorse. His love and care for Jane is touching -- while Jane seems a bit cruel to him, either from the insensitivity of youth or, perhaps, from her homicidal nature.

Beyond all that however, there is something about Mr. Brooks that both is appealing and is something her shares with Dexter Morgan and Hannibal Lecter:  he is good at what he does. Virtues excite admiration; and part of the paradox of all these serial killer characters is that their excellence in their craft, as it were, elevates them in some way above their crimes.

It doesn't always work that way. Ted Bundy was good at what he did, but I venture to opine that it rarely excites much admiration for him. Part of the genius, perhaps of The Silence of the Lambs, is that we get both kinds of characters. The actual case in the book, involving the serial killer known as "Buffalo Bill," leads us to a Bundy-like character who actually is, like Hannibal, good at what he does, but then we are left with little but horror and revulsion in contemplating him. Hannibal is the one who has some fascinating quality that paradoxically seems to elevate him above his offenses. Indeed, this is consistent with many beliefs about Satan:  that he can be attractive, fascinating, and appealing -- but with nothing but betrayal, darkness, and cruelty concealed within.

Mr. Brooks does not seem Satanic in that way, which perhaps is one way in which he seems more human. We also become inadverently admiring of his virtues because, after the Dance Couple, the only people he kills in the movie are those we have come to think rather deserve it -- although the bar is not as high as with Dexter. If this has been doing good, even including a favor for Detective Atwood, what may be involved is an ancient sense, such as we see in the Labors of Heracles, that good expiates evil. Morally, this is not quite right; but it is a principle that may nevertheless appeal to us. We see something of the sort in Hugo's Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean's good life has certainly made up for the crimes of his youth. But then, Jean Valjean's crimes were trivial in comparison to those of Mr. Brooks', and anyone's sense of justice is more offended by the punishment with which Jean is threatened than by the offenses that he committed -- the only real offense in the end being to jump parole.

So perhaps part of my fascination with Mr. Brooks is the complexity of his character and situation. It would be better in general if Mr. Brooks were in jail, but it would be a better and more triumphant story if Mr. Brooks were able to defeat Marshall, rise above his addiction, redeem his crimes, and defuse the danger of his daughter. If Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon are unable to continue the story, we will never know. But it may also be the case that there would be no satisfying way, morally or dramaticly, to complete the story.

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Copyright (c) 2010 Kelley L. Ross, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved