Fox // 1980 // 131 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 20th, 2013
The most wanted man in Wakefield prison is the warden!
"You can't reform the system if you're not in it."
Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) has just been appointed the new warden of a small prison in rural Arkansas. He opts to begin his work in an exceptionally unconventional way, posing as a prisoner for a few days in an attempt to learn a bit about what life is like for men who will be under his supervision. To his horror, he discovers a variety of injustices taking place on a daily basis: brutal beatings, men being forced to pay for their food and medical care, cruel treatment of certain prisoners and much more. When Brubaker finally comes forward to officially take his position, he declares that things are going to change. Unfortunately, making those changes is going to be considerably more difficult than he ever imagined.
For the first half-hour of Brubaker, Robert Redford says very little. We watch as a variety of prisoners are treated in horrific fashion, and so does he. He doesn't draw any attention to himself, but we see his eyes darting back and forth as he attempts to assess every angle of each situation. There are few actors better-suited to this sort of thing than Redford -- you can always see the wheels spinning. Even as he quietly defers to the inevitably louder actors he's sharing the screen with, he steals the scene with the tiniest of gestures: his eyes narrow, he bites his lip, you see the faintest trace of a grin. Ever so, he's also the rare actor who consistently seems crafty without ever really seeming untrustworthy, which also makes him the ideal actor to play the sort of unshakeable moral force Brubaker presents. It's easy to forget about the man these days thanks to increasingly sparse big-screen appearance and the generally forgettable movies he's directed, but seeing Redford in a flick like this reminds us of why he deserves to be remembered as one of the great movie stars of the 20th Century.
Not that Brubaker itself quite manages to reach classic status, mind you. It's a good movie, but it suffers from ever-increasing levels of preachiness as it marches towards the finish line. By the final act, we're treated to a courtroom scene of the "You're out of order!" variety, some surprisingly soppy final exchanges between key characters and a somewhat embarrassing closing scene containing an earnest, honest-to-God slow clap (only made bearable by the legitimate beauty of the accompanying Lalo Schifrin score). It seems natural enough by the time you get there, but there's an alarmingly sharp contrast between the documentary-style realism of the first act and the Hollywood theatrics of the third.
Thankfully, the majority of Brubaker is pretty good stuff, offering a (for the era, anyway) no-holds-barred portrait of prison life. The new warden isn't a left-wing utopian who thinks that a prison needs to be run like a day spa, but he's a firm believer in working to ensure that everyone is treated with some measure of humanity. It's remarkable how much opposition he finds in trying to enforce this new policy, finding corruption standing in his way around every corner. Part of the film's power is that the it isn't telling the story of a man's journey to successfully overhauling an entire system; it's about the near-impossible struggle to make just a small dent in the wall.
Though the film is unquestionably a star vehicle for Redford, a number of small supporting turns make a big impression. A young Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption) has an electrifying scene as an angry, hostile inmate; a welcome reminder of what an edgy force the actor could be before he transformed into the beloved, grandfatherly figure we know today. M. Emmett Walsh plays a corrupt contractor, and manages to be hilarious and sleazy in the way that he so often is. Murray Hamilton chews up the scenery while essentially reprising his Jaws performance, this time playing a foolish governor rather than a foolish mayor. Jane Alexander (Tell Me You Love Me) is solid as a government employee sympathetic to Brubaker's cause, and Yaphet Kotto (Alien) effectively depicts the cynical prisoner wary of the new warden's reform efforts. IMDb also claims that Nicolas Cage makes his very first film appearance as an extra, but I confess that I didn't spot him.
Brubaker (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/1.85:1 transfer that successfully highlights the film's plain, gritty palette and no-nonsense cinematography. Detail is strong throughout, and the image has a level of richness and depth, which is surprising for a bare-bones catalogue release. Wonderful. Facial detail is excellent and black levels are impressive. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track isn't really remarkable in any way, but it's clean and sharp through and through. The laconic Schifrin score in particular sounds excellent. Supplements are limited to a trailer and some TV spots.
Brubaker may turn a bit too earnest for its own good in the end, but for the most part it's a stellar prison drama sporting a strong central performance from Robert Redford. Check it out.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* TV Spots