We love movie murderers; whether it’s Dirty Harry executing punks or Hannibal Lecter eating the rude. Morals slacken when killing is done on-screen. The fact these guys would probably kill us if they got half a chance doesn’t factor (we know we’d be the exception to their “kill ’em all” rule). In Mr. Brooks it’s Kevin Costner who plays the psychopath. He’s more Jekyll and Hyde than Dracula, but he still kills more often than most of us eat hot meals. What is it about a guy like that? Why would anyone think they could make us sympathise with him?
Costner starts the movie at a banquet. He’s the guest of honour; Portland, Oregon’s Man of the Year. He has a beautiful wife and a thriving business, but he’s also a psycho with a split personality. The other half of Costner’s mind (his bad fairy) is played by Bill Hurt. He talks incessantly of murder. Later on, the night of the banquet, Costner steps out with Hurt in tow and calmly offs two exhibitionists. Then he cleans up (destroying every scrap of evidence). Unfortunately for him, he’s been seen.
There’s a lot of Hitchcock in Mr. Brooks; dark laughs mixed with horrible deeds. Casting Costner works because he always looks ticked off at something, his niceness ever strained. He wears a bow-tie when he’s good Brooks, just a bit too – whatever the hell a bow-tie is. You can believe that people would like him as a boss, but also that he’d be a serial killer. He’s got that pinched quality (look at the way he sips his drinks). Costner only loosens up when he’s around Hurt, or when he’s killing somebody. It’s not a bravura performance, but Costner certainly savours his schadenfreude.
Bill Hurt, free of conscience and the demand not to over-act in his scenes, has a whale of a time. Hurt has long ago stopped acting like The Accidental Tourist. He’s in his Al Pacino-phase: wide-eyed, exhilarated. He debuted this style in A History of Violence and, with a rapturous critical response, he’s off and running. There isn’t much subtlety to his act, but he’s playing Costner’s id, not his superego. He evens chews gum when he’s not speaking, just to tap us for some attention. Hearing him plead Costner to kill is like listening as a friend implores you to the dance-floor. You’ve had a few, you know you’ll regret it, but damned if he doesn’t make it sound enticing.
But Costner is spotted. Dane Cook sees him kill two people, and wants in. I can’t pretend this part of the movie makes sense, but then, there’s a lot after the first twenty minutes that confused me. For starters: Demi Moore. She plays a cop. Her one expression is adequate for playing a cop. But this cop is also a millionaire. It’s a tricky role. Put Debra Winger in Moore’s place and you’d have a second plot that was worth following. With Moore (burning teeth, gritted eyes), you’re waiting on Costner. In a movie about a murderer, if you also include a cop, he or she had better bring some acting firepower. Because we’re on the murderer’s side (like it or not) and only idiosyncratic show-boating is going to save us. Sadly, Moore plods. Her frozen-forehead and store-dummy stare aren’t going to win over anybody.
We aren’t rational when we watch movies. We worry more about dogs dying than we do humans. Make Mr Brooks neat, a good dad and (in all likelihood) kind to animals, and we root for him. It’s all about who the movie is about, whether the subject is a movie star and how skilled they are with quips. Because we act out in movies; they’re our holiday from restraint. We don’t want to sympathise with nasty serial killers, but as long as they kill only bad people – what the hell. It’s movie Stockholm syndrome. If the baddies are charming enough, the audience says: kill away.