Does your father enjoy social reform movies, and/or the work of acclaimed actor Robert Redford? If you answered “yes” to either of those questions, you might want to pick up a copy of the 20th Century Fox film, Brubaker on Blu-ray. While the movie is dated with its hammy analysis of prison reform, the script is bristling with emotion and has some fantastic performances from Redford, Yaphet Kotto, and a pre-fame Morgan Freeman.
Henry Brubaker (Redford) is the new ward of Wakefield Prison in Arkansas. Masquerading as an inmate, Brubaker discovers a living hell cloaked in a shroud of discipline with beatings and deteriorating conditions being de rigueur. When he tries to instill reformation, Brubaker comes up against a wall of opposition from those who seek to benefit, and those who believe the harsh way is the only way to handle prisoners.
Idealistic; that’s the word to describe the entire trajectory of Brubaker. The plot is fairly formulaic showing the audience how terrible prisons were “back in the day,” the day being sometime in the 1960s, and how one man wanted to change things for the better but is told to stick to “tradition.” Of course, with the 1980s being a clash between family values and radicalism, it makes sense that Brubaker is the lone voice of compassion for the world’s worst prisoners. While he agrees that these men shouldn’t be coddled, any man who tries to escape will be shot, that doesn’t give the guards and wardens leeway to commit murder or atrocities. I wasn’t aware of the plot of the movie, so while I didn’t believe Robert Redford was a prison inmate – the man sticks out like a Christmas present in the city dump – from the minute he steps over a half-dead inmate you, and him, understand the world to be entered; and by the way the inmates respond to the body, this isn’t the first time this has happened. It’s a succinct set-up and a solid introduction regardless of whether you believe Redford in the role.
With that, Redford is the eyes and ears for the audience as the first half of the film explores the daily grind that the inmates are subjected to – a series of random attacks and work where the men can only catch snatches of sleep in-between. When men are abused, the others simply stand there and bear witness to it, feeling completely helpless, or numb to it all. The problem is this cycle starts to wear thin with little progression or proper introduction to the characters. I understood Redford’s character, so far as he’s a prisoner, but I knew that because he was the lead; who are the other characters? There’s the guard in a relationship with a woman, who I was never sure whether she was a prostitute, or not; he did keep her in a shack on prison property. We also meet a few of the convicts, specifically Richard Coombes (Kotto) and Bullen (David Keith). However, I never felt drawn to them because, outside of their names, they have no personality. As for Redford himself, the first 25 minutes see him entirely mute, taking in events but never participating or speaking! The slowness does allow the film to open up and breathe, but I couldn’t connect with any of the other characters outside of knowing their life is so horrible.
Thankfully, the first 25 minutes goes away and the rest of the movie is a vast improvement, although it never truly rises above anything more than formulaic. The best work is in the script, which got nominated for an Oscar and rightfully so. There’s several moving pieces throughout that are interesting, although given short shrift in a few cases; the hierarchy between the guards and the inmates is further broken down into whites and African-Americans, which adds a whole other layer of tension on top of a powder keg situation that Brubaker walks into. Speaking of, once Brubaker reveals himself and actively takes over as warden, he’s given more to chew on that works for him. He’s a commanding presence and when he’s placed at a board meeting with a group of anti-prison reformists (including Murray Hamilton who played the disinterested mayor from Jaws), he’s determined to get things done. For Redford, what’s important is that you see him as one of the boys, although with a touch more authority. He’s not a warden, but a man who wants to rehabilitate the men by treating them like human beings; again, admirable although it makes Redford come off a bit too saintly at times. The bright spots are when Redford and Kotto are acting in conjunction with each other, as they do present two totally different experiences. Kotto’s character, Coombes, is given a position of authority, but it’s degraded by the racist views of the white guards who leave Coombes to deal with the “coloreds.” Brubaker and Coombes must work together, and while it’s not shown on-screen, Coombs is the one who gets things accomplished; in an epilogue, it is revealed that Coombes successfully sued Wakefield prison for violating inmates’ Constitutional rights. The Blu-ray looks and sounds good, although the only bonus content are television spots and trailers, so the movie will be the main selling point; that, and the film début of Morgan Freeman who plays a deranged prison inmate and gives a bravura performance in about three minutes of screentime.
Despite the repetitious nature of Brubaker finding something horrific, being told not to investigate, etc., Brubaker is a fascinating movie. Redford is cliché, but he makes cliché work to the hilt and is a formidable presence in a film that places him against the equally stellar Yaphet Kotto. The prison reform movie is a difficult model to screw up, because it’s always intriguing to see how horrific prison conditions once were, and there is an intriguing story to be discovered; once you get past the slow 25 minutes, the film is an entertaining ride.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.