There is an old chestnut among film reviewers, even those of excellent taste, that a movie's subject does not really matter as much as how that film is about that subject. Now I am all for keeping our minds open to the new and weird – those two adjectives tend to stick together – but some genres possess such moronic conventions as to be hopelessly uninteresting until proven otherwise (generally, we are still waiting for such proof). Westerns; tales of drug addicts and addiction; hookers with golden hearts; gangsters and their macabre system of laws that dissolve into one hideous law; society balls and debutantes taking two hours' worth of footage to conclude that their servants might in fact be human beings – all these plots, with an exception here and there, remain dull ponds inhabited by the simplest cyanobacteria. Their audiences know exactly what they're getting and wish themselves nothing more or less, which is a bit like enjoying your movies like you enjoy your gobstoppers. And while I have several times criticized the conceit of the serial killer, this movie does something refreshingly different.
Our film begins with this prayer and the portentous declaration that, "the hunger has returned to Mr. Brooks's brain. It never really left." The prayer is apparently in common use in Alcoholics Anonymous and other such groups, whereas the warning reinforces the notion of uncontrolled mania – and here things derail ever so slightly. The Mr. Brooks in question is Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner), an esteemed businessman and philanthropist, the Portland Chamber of Commerce's man of year, and the husband of the dishy Emma (Marg Helgenberger). Brooks seems humbled by the honor and, before beginning his rehearsed thank-yous, blows a kiss to Emma that would make most women quiver. That kiss is but the first of numerous minutia that separate Mr. Brooks from a conventional film. While most works of this genre would hint at evil as early as possible, it is only during the drive home that we see how unstimulated our Mr. Brooks really is. Emma starts prattling on about some female guest's unsuccessful cosmetic strategy, and the Man of the Year's mind drifts in that eerie way so commonly incident to bored husbands. Suddenly in the back seat appears a chalky Mephistophelean character whom Brooks calls Marshall (William Hurt).
We understand that Marshall exists solely in Brooks's head – as a confederate and, as events reveal, his accountant for precise data retrieval since Marshall seems to have an acute case of total recall. The only outward manifestation we get of Marshall is Brooks's suddenly wrinkled brow, a detail that does not escape Mrs. Brooks. Why is his brow wrinkled? "I was thinking of what I didn't say in my speech." Such magnanimity cools Emma's worries, and as Marshall and Brooks talk, Emma seems terribly irrelevant, even as she accepts Brooks's excuse that, on the very night of his award, he is going to blow glass in his workshop instead of sleep with her. Emma tells him to wake her up when he gets back, they embrace tenderly like a middle-aged couple very much in love, and Brooks goes off to pursue his hobby. Ah yes, his hobby. Without investing much time in pre-viewing research, it is evident from the official poster that blowing glass is not really what makes Brooks's toes curl up in ecstasy. No, that would something altogether different and altogether atrocious. How he finds the apartment of the two dancers he plans on murdering is not ours to ponder – Mr. Brooks is a very resourceful man. Hence we should not be surprised by his closet full of identical outfits that allow him to handle his task with ease and speed (even though he vacuums the scene of the crime). In a wonderful moment, Brooks relives the killings as if in orgasm and waltzes in place, assuring us that we are dealing with a psychopath of the first disorder; his polaroids of the corpses posed in a variety of erotic positions suggest an even more abominable mind at work. Brooks is delighted; Marshall, who is the embodiment of devilry, is even more delighted; and the "Thumbprint Killer," a moniker derived from a technique that I will not spoil, has officially returned to action after a two-year hiatus. Alas, the layoff has damaged his surveillance skills because it is only after the slayings are complete that Marshall, well, Brooks, notices the wide-open bedroom drapes.
Commendably, the normal complications do not arise. Blackmail does occur in the sleazy form of Mr. Smith (Dane Cook), a neighboring voyeur, but the conditions proposed do not involve money. There is also the rather diverting matter of the two other female leads in the film, Brooks's college freshman daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker), and the police officer investigating the Thumbprint Killer, Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore). A reviewer much more computerized than I would aver that each of these women suffers from some kind of father-daughter complex – and I think we need to leave the matter at that. What can be stated is that Jane takes all too much after dear old dad and Tracy, somehow both a cop and an heiress to a fortune, has spent her entire adult life spiting her father and his doubts. Jane's gesticulations and body language, quite explicit for a young actress, make it clear that she's hiding something (a tactic Marshall intuits, but the truth is squeezed out slowly and not completely) apart from her pregnancy with "a married man with two kids who wants to have nothing to do with me." This bad, bad, bad situation unravels in Palo Alto where, mind you, a college student has just been axed to death. Atwood's vignettes are pleasingly distinct from our main thread as she simultaneously battles a divorce from a much younger husband (Jason Lewis, a former model who in some ways may remind the viewer of Moore's real spouse). She also tries not to get whacked by Thornton Meeks (Matt Schulze), an escaped felon that she imprisoned and perhaps the most improbable name for a serial killer we have ever encountered.
But our film does not only welcome improbability, it revels in every deliciously absurd moment. Mr. Brooks towers over similar films through a combination of well-timed humor (the best being an exchange between Brooks and Marshall as Smith crosses a rainy intersection) and casting against type. Having Moore play a brainy yet socially naïve heiress is ridiculous enough, but it is Costner that makes the film. We are not sure, however, how he pulls it off. His character is assiduously controlled yet neither despotic nor effete. Some critics have bought into his attendance of AA meetings and murmured prayers as signs that he loathes himself, and, indeed, occasionally one catches glimpses of his humanity beneath the panels of the robotic death machine. "Killing people," says Brooks at one philosophical moment, "is kind of like falling in love. You get to know people and they're nice. But they're not the right ones." Somehow, that horrible simile is the truest thing that Brooks says throughout his well-chosen verbal jabs with Marshall, Jane, and Mr. Smith. And what about his admission to Smith in that graveyard? I guess promiscuity is not limited to those golden-hearted harlots.