Listen to me: trash can surprise you. So don’t get all elitist about the so-called cheap thrills in Mr. Brooks. The film, directed by Bruce A. Evans, who co-wrote the screenplay for Stand by Me, is out to trigger shocks of recognition. Kevin Costner is off the hook as Earl Brooks — by day a devoted husband, father and businessman, by night a serial killer with a taste for kink. Costner’s career is enjoying a second wind that started with 2005’s Upside of Anger. Age (he’s fifty-two) has opened him up more to risk. Not since 1993, when director Clint Eastwood brought out his dark side in A Perfect World, has Costner veered so far from the straight and narrow. Depravity becomes him. You don’t expect raw brutality from a man who prides himself on his corporate face. Or, as this movie wittily and provocatively suggests, maybe you should.
Mr. Brooks has an accomplice in his crimes. His name is Marshall, and William Hurt plays him with such cheeky irreverence that it takes you a few beats to figure out he’s not real. Marshall is Earl’s alter ego, the voice that goads him into murderous action. After a dinner in his honor, Earl drives home with his wife, Emma (Marg Helgenberger), but it’s Marshall whispering in his ear, “Come on. Let’s do it.”
After a sabbatical from slaughter, Earl gets back in the swim with a couple he kills while they are naked and writhing in bed. Earl is meticulous, almost sanitized, in his approach to execution. After the final shot from his silencer, Earl snaps photos and does a happy dance, a balletic arm extension that will freak you out.
That it doesn’t freak out Mr. Smith, the photographer in the apartment across the way who snaps Earl in the act, is scarier still. Mr. Smith blackmails Earl — not for money but for the chance to stand and watch during his next crime. Comedian Dane Cook is sensational in the role, delivering a portrait of amorality that chills you to the bone.
Evans lets the movie get away from him with subplots involving Earl’s college-age daughter (Danielle Panabaker) and the cop on the case, played by Demi Moore with a striking directness that deserved better than being saddled with an absurd back story as an heiress with a fortune-hunting husband.
But when this mind-bender of a thriller sticks to the war going on between Earl and his conscience, Mr. Brooks spins a web that will wrap you up in nightmares.