A lurching, zigzag tale of serial murder, killer apprenticeship, malevolent reverence and cat-and-mouse investigation, Kevin Costner's Mr Brooks puts a deliciously warped spin on what are by now many prim and proper thriller conventions. A throwback to a certain breed of wildly plot-driven thrillers from the 1980s, the film surfs along on its own crest of rising ridiculousness before slowly becoming something more interesting than it's able to convincingly sell in its single-hook television ads and marketing campaign.
Mr Brooks should stake out a decent opening courtesy of its name recognition and star power when it rolls out in the US this week. Still, longtime Costner fans will likely feel somewhat alienated by the dark nature of the material, and a heavy, lasting commercial footprint in a summer in which every weekend presents a reloaded slate seems unlikely. The movie's best chance at breaking out comes via word-of-mouth from younger audiences turned on by the picture's careening, sometimes almost kitschy unpredictability.
The obvious benchmarks here are The Talented Mr. Ripley, which rang up $128m worldwide in 1999, and the character of Hannibal Lecter, another well-to-do, extremely intelligent killer. Still, Mr Brooks seemingly lacks the charismatic centre - and, thus, wider box office potential - of those movies, so mired is it in labyrinthine story twists. A better point of reference may be a wildly meandering adult thriller like Malice, which took in $46m, albeit in the less difficult autumnal season of 1993.
International audiences may have a slightly different take on Mr Brooks, given a separate read on Costner's big screen persona, but the movie is unlikely to break out abroad either, consigning most of its revenue to ancillary markets, where television replay should be strong due to the marquee names in its cast.
The film centres on Earl Brooks (Costner), an extremely successful and highly regarded Portland, Ore., businessman with a loving wife, Emma (Helgenberger). Urged on by his gum-chewing, murderous id 'Marshall' (Hurt), however, Brooks also leads another life - as a notorious serial murderer, branded the Thumbprint Killer.
Brooks is always exceedingly careful, and thus never caught. But when he leaves open a set of curtains during his latest killing, however, Brooks is glimpsed by a Peeping Tom photographer from across the street, Mr Smith (Cook), who plies him with a bizarre blackmail demand - for Brooks to take him along on his next murderous undertaking. This same clue, meanwhile, presents an opening in the Thumbprint Killer case for hard-charging Detective Tracy Atwood (Moore).
Brooks accedes to Smith's request, perhaps taking up a protege or perhaps biding his time before erasing all of Smith's incriminating evidence, then Smith himself. Against this strange backdrop of uneasy partnership, Brooks' daughter Jane (Panabaker) returns home from college with a secret; Brooks also takes an interest in Atwood, actually working to erase an escaped killer convict who's stalking her.
Scripted by director Bruce A Evans (Kuffs) with writing partner Raynold Gideon (Stand By Me), Mr Brooks is full of feints, but also, and more notably, bold choices. If its execution is very occasionally derisible (one cramped hallway shootout in particular plays like the old Naked Gun joke of people firing guns at one another from two metres apart), the movie never loses the benefit and advantage of genuine surprise, both good and bad.
Its concentric circles of noose-tightening plot may be each implausible on their own, but combine to produce a certain dizzying effect. Mr Brooks isn't high art, but its audaciousness does make it enjoyable.
Costner and Hurt exercise great care in negotiating their split, ping-pong monologues on death - when the latter speaks, time seems to freeze around Brooks, and of course no one else hears him. The character of Marshall could have been an easily overdone device, but Evans and Gideon use him carefully, as a spice to the main dish. This approach benefits both Hurt and Costner, the latter of whom delivers a solid performance which showcases both the rapture and regret of his homicidal compulsion.
Moore, on the other hand, more or less goes through the paces as the stern Atwood, and Cook, in his first significant dramatic role, never really gets a firm handle on his character's unhinged desire for vicarious death.
Cinematographer John Lindley is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Nora Ephron and the sunlit cornfields of Field Of Dreams, but has notable previous experience with skulking paternal figures via the cult hit The Stepfather. Working with Evans, he nicely contrasts the clean, open and light palettes of Brooks' work and home life with darker, shadow-soaked frames of his thrill kill trolling. Arty, if somewhat affected slow-motion and inter-scene replay also capture Brooks' orgiastic enjoyment of the actual act of killing.
Composer Ramin Djawadi, an Emmy winner for his work on American television's Prison Break, delivers a pulsing, evocative score that lays well over the movie's more ruminative and apprehensive passages. The Veils' moody emo tune Vicious Traditions, meanwhile, also meshes nicely, figuring prominently into a late scene of importance.
Eden Rock Media
Element Films International
Bruce A Evans & Raynold Gideon