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Mr. Brooks

The Serial Killer Next Door

Back in the mid-80s when actor Kevin Costner established himself as a box office draw, he was compared to Hollywood icon Gary Cooper, primarily for his ability to play decent, respectable characters that never strayed from their moral identities. After several expensive flops and misfires (e.g. Waterworld, Wyatt Earp, The Postman), Costner was relegated to the B-list, but kept himself in the public eye by working in a variety of genres, occasionally in secondary roles. He’s back in a lead role, though, in director/co-writer’s Bruce A. Evans (Jungle 2 Jungle, Cutthroat, Stand by Me) psychological thriller, Mr. Brooks, playing the titular character, a successful businessman by day and equally successful serial killer by night.

Earl Brooks (Costner) has everything an upper-middle-class, middle-aged, thrill-seeking serial killer could want: a self-made businessman, a “Man of the Year” award from the Portland, Oregon community, a loving wife, Emma (Marg Helgenberger), and a teenage daughter just beginning college at Stanford University. As a serial killer, Brooks even has his own nickname, the “Thumb Print Killer". Brooks also has an imaginary alter ego, Marshall (William Hurt), who constantly exhorts him to murder. No one else can see Marshall or Brooks’ struggle to refrain from killing. A self-confessed addict (to murder, not narcotics or alcohol), Brooks attends AA meetings regularly. Despite his best efforts, though, Brooks gives in to Marshall and murders a couple he’s been stalking.

Whether out of carelessness or a desire to be stopped, Brooks is captured closing the curtains on the murder scene by the dead couple’s voyeuristic neighbor, Mr. Smith (Dane Cook). Smith tracks Brooks down and requests a meeting. Smith isn’t interested in blackmailing Brooks, at least not for money. Smith wants Brooks to mentor him in the fine art of becoming a serial killer. If Brooks doesn’t agree to Smith’s demands, Smith will hand over incriminating evidence to the police. Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore), a detective obsessed with the Thumb Print Killer, has been assigned to Brooks’ latest murders.

Unfortunately, Mr. Brooks starts off strong but goes off the rails at the half-way mark when Evans and his writing partner, Raynold Gideon, introduce the “killers aren’t made, they’re born” theme through a plot contrivance that, sad to say, converts Mr. Brooks from semi-serious, semi-satisfying psychological thriller (think Fight Club or Identity) to unserious, campy pulp (the recent Perfect Stranger comes to mind).

It doesn’t get any better when Brooks’ eventual fate gets sidelined while he goes off to “save” a family member from an unrelated police investigation, a save that’s accomplished by having Brooks assume several false identities (all of them goofy). The subplot adds little except a fake out ending that’s equal parts gory and absurd.

Evans and Gideon also don’t do Mr. Brooks or themselves any favors by spending too much time on the Atwood character and her personal and professional difficulties, none directly tied to Brooks' crimes. Alone, Atwood's overstuffed storyline could have filled a feature-length film.

Story aside, Mr. Brooks is interesting and compelling primarily due to Kevin Costner’s edgy, unsympathetic performance that breaks away from his established everyman persona. For an actor often criticized for his limited range and expressivity, Costner gives a surprisingly convincing performance as Mr. Brooks. It helps, of course, that Evans had an Oscar-winning actor, William Hurt, to play against Kevin Costner. Evans manages to keep Hurt’s fondness for scenery chewing to a minimum, surprising for an imaginary character whose chief purpose is as semi-comic foil for the taciturn, introspective Brooks. Alas, next to Costner and Hurt, Demi Moore doesn’t fare as well, but it’s not likely most moviegoers will go to see Mr. Brooks for Moore (harsh but true), but for Costner playing a different kind of serial killer. At least for the first half of Mr. Brooks’ running time, that’s exactly what moviegoers will get.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars