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Mr. Brooks

A voice gnaws at the back of Mr. Brooks' head. It's a hunger, sweet and insistent, and stopping for an ice cream really won't quell it. Disturbingly enough, it takes the form of William Hurt, smiling and whispering more tenderly than he did in Kiss of the Spider-Woman. In a strange way, it even seems reasonable.

So something starts gnawing at the back of our heads, and it's a little more familiar for movie-goers: old-fashioned dread. Like its title character played by Kevin Costner, Mr. Brooks may seem a little out of step with the times. As much character study as thriller, the film shows restraint. Despite the presence of Dane Cook, it also shows wit and elegance. We have an unexpectedly intelligent horror film on our hands.

Director Bruce A. Evans wastes little time in establishing his plot, even opening with a title card explaining his protagonist's conundrum. If not for the sudden appearance of Earl Brooks' twisted Jiminy Cricket Marshall (Hurt), you might think this would be the success story of an alcoholic, battling his inner demons. Except that Brooks' inner demon turns him into the Thumbprint Killer, who has been out of the public eye for two years, but had a good reign of terror in Portland for years.

By day Earl runs a box company. He's a respected member of the community with a loving wife (Marg Helgenberger) and a somewhat troubled daughter (Danielle Panabaker) off at Stanford. Even after attending an AA meeting, though, he just can't fight those urges. Things only get worse when an amateur photographer (Cook) witnesses a killing and wants more.

Everything about this film stays marvelously low-key. By the nature of his subject matter, Evans has to show some gore, but it never feels gratuitous, and it's really not much worse than most PG-13 movies. The R rating has to come from the disturbing sympathy we feel for Brooks' plight. He really is a nice guy. He really wants to be better. And he really, really gets off on killing.

After years of bouncing around on reputation, everyman Costner rises back to the promise of his acting. When living his normal life, Earl speaks in a subtly strangled tone, quickly playing through conversations in his head to make sure he's giving nothing away (as addicts often do), especially trying to avoid betraying Marshall's presence.

Then he can cut loose at night as the Thumbprint Killer, and all of Costner's easygoing charm spills out. Both sides are seductive, and they play well off of the nervous energy of Cook. Without that charm to force Cook to calm down, the comedian would be insufferable.

Of course, a killer like Mr. Brooks needs a worthy antagonist, and she comes in the form of Detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore). Smart, focused and independently wealthy, Atwood does the job because she believes in it. And Brooks finds that fascinating, much to Marshall's dismay.

Watching Mr. Brooks may make you feel very unsafe. Cinematographer John Lindley shoots everything in a very muted, mundane fashion. Even a naked Brooks in front of his burning kiln looks somehow normal. If that's normal, then there may be more than one Brooks out there.

We can hope there's a Detective Atwood as well. This role makes a much better return to the screen for Moore than Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. Finally, she can balance the steely side of her persona with her talent and drive the character through. Of course, we don't quite want her to win.

In several interviews, Costner has made noise about this being a trilogy. The most unsettling thing about Mr. Brooks perhaps is that it so naturally lends itself to that. Costner found himself a late-career franchise in the most unlikely of ways, playing against type and playing with great intelligence.


Derek McCaw

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