A heartwarming tale of murder.
One of the most enduring stories in folklore is that of the country mouse and the city mouse. For those unfamiliar, or who just need a refresher course, the basic plot is this: country mouse is visited by his city cousin, who finds his laid-back life filled with barley and grain rather boring. He invites his backwoods kin to the urban jungle for a lesson in really living. When country mouse meets metropolis, he can't believe how good the food is. But he is also aware of the numerous dangers that come with getting those goodies. He bids farewell to his cousin, saying he'd rather have his simple foods and eat them in peace and comfort, than fancy vittles…and be frightened to death all the time. Indeed, the influence of big city ideas, like modernization and industrialization, has been at odds with country folk since the West was won and the antebellum fables of the Reconstruction.
In the powerful 1992 documentary, Brother's Keeper, we witness the ultimate clash between the city and country mentality. On one side is a group of illiterate, indigent brothers, retarded by their way of life and addled brains into functioning within a self-created universe of systemic depravation and prehistoric living conditions versus a social structure built on the modern conceits of truth, justice, and the legal process. When Bill Ward's lifeless body was found, soiled and still, in the bed he shared with his elderly, empty brother Delbert, that death set in motion a serious look at these men, their motivations, and the possibility of murder in the small and tightly knit community of Munnsville, New York. As it did more than a decade ago, this non-fiction feature film functions as a reminder that buried deep in the heart of America are people and places where the standard rules of the social order just don't apply.
Facts of the Case
On the morning of June 6, 1990, Delbert Ward and his brothers Roscoe and Lyman woke up to discover something terrible: their brother Bill lay dead in the bed he shared with Delbert, having apparently passed in his sleep. As arrangements were made for a funeral and burial, local law enforcement investigated the case. They concluded Bill might have been murdered, suffocated during the night. The only problem was motive: the brothers had been hermit-like farmers since they were children, living a secluded life of poverty and near inseparability. As the mentally challenged old men were questioned, some startling information was discovered. Bill had been very ill and had complained of unending pain. Bill was known to have thoughts of suicide. Delbert had apparently even discussed the idea of a mercy killing, of putting Bill out of his and their misery. To everyone's shock, Delbert appeared to confess to the crime. Once the case came to trial, however, questions were raised regarding competence, possible police coercion, and the lack of real physical evidence linking Delbert to his brother's death.
Documentary filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky read about the case in the New York Times, and with credit cards and 16mm camera in hands, they went upstate to uncover the truth. Along the way, they ran into a colorful collection of conflicted characters: irate townsfolk, angry that these local simpletons had been targeted by the authorities; a weary attorney, tired by the increasingly bizarre tactics taken by the State to prove its case; and the Ward Brothers themselves, men of depth and dignity who lived their simple lives covered in dirt and dung. As the trial progressed and the facts became more clouded, a question started to arise. Was Delbert really the illiterate innocent, incapable of harming even an injured animal? Or was he a cold-blooded killer, deciding once and for all to be his Brother's Keeper…and executioner.
The images are elegant in their simplicity: a farmer in a pair of dirty pants and an overly worn jacket herds his cows through the fog like shadows breaking through the thick mist; a hay baler takes long, languid strides up and down a field, gathering stalks and bundling them into neat, orderly piles; golden orange sunsets paint the sky a rich pastoral shade as leafless trees reach their thinning tendrils to the sky; the outline of a figure passes over a hill, moving off into the infinite distance of rural countryside. But when the details are filled in and the images become focused, we start to see depressing things: the sad, creviced face of the cattleman; the rusting hulk of the farm equipment; the remaining lifelessness around the barren oaks; the tired, troubled soul of the man moving off into oblivion. As a eulogy to a lost way of life and the destruction of America's backbone, the farmer and his vanishing farmland has become a cause celebre for everyone from rock and rollers to professional politicians. Many see the problems that exist within the heartland of this nation as being just a subsidy or charity check's throw away from being solved. But this view is as archaic as the reasons why the agricultural infrastructure of the country is failing in the first place. Old-fashioned ways just cannot mesh with post-modern complacency. This is now a nation of immediate gratifications and instant requirement-meeting. We no longer care how long it takes to grow a tomato or a carrot, we just want to make sure we have a nice, ripe, and delicious dozen or two whenever the mood hits us. Time is our enemy. And if the farm won't modernize into the new millennium, we will drag it kicking and screaming until it relents…or goes belly up.
Brother's Keeper is the story of such old ways meeting the complications of contemporary mores. It is a masterpiece of factual storytelling. It's a truly original vision of a forlorn and forgotten family. It's a rural morality play. It's a crime thriller. It's a compelling courtroom drama. And it is the very definition of American gothic. Whatever Grant Wood was trying to capture in his portrait of a farming preacher and his disapproving wife is realized and humanized by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky's mesmerizing sketch of the Ward Brothers, their seemingly destitute life (on more than just a financial level) and the secrets buried within a dilapidated shack in upstate New York. This is the story of the disappearing farmer. It is the death knell for the rural becoming suburban. It peels back the layers of custom, acceptance, and compliance that have molded and moderated these poor people's lives for so many eons, and discovers the decorum and the desperate depravity underneath. No other film, before or since (with the possible exception of American Hollow, Rory Kennedy's devastating look at poverty in Appalachia), has captured the look, the feel, and the foreboding of the final ends of human society. Mixed with gorgeous images of rural America as a wasteland of agricultural squalor and filled with the kind of unique, arresting individuals that make documentary films so fascinating, this is a motion picture about how the truth gets tangled into tradition and local temperament to create a witch hunt and/or a conspiracy of silence.
Brother's Keeper is also a movie about faces. It's about what time and toil does to the skin, the folds around the eyes, the flesh about the jaw line. Interviews are mostly conducted in extreme close-up, the better to let the camera and its unflattering lens drink in the history and heritage of the individual. The Wards, the Teeples, and other country folk are seen as noble roadmaps, facial scrapbooks of recorded emotional and episodic history. Every event they have lived through, every crisis, every triumph, is carved into their brows and around their eye sockets. These are people with faces chiseled out, like underground caverns, by sweat and erosion, wind and weather, the telltale signs of a life spent in the attempted tending and taming of the land. They have the faces of workers. They have the faces of survivors. The city folk, on the other hand, have their high-minded ideas about regulation, fairness, and rights written all across their calm, puffy blank white faces. Theirs are personas of lives spent in passive enjoyment, of trouble-free fattened luxury. This blank look of privilege reveals a clear lack of connection to the community, to the people, and most importantly, to the land they lord over. The fact that these swollen, emotionless faces are the ones determining the fate of Delbert, and for that matter his brothers and their way of life, strikes one of the more interesting themes of Brother's Keeper. Who determines the value of life, and who is allowed to change, deride, or even end it? This is the rural way versus the metropolitan style. This is country mouse against city mouse.
Yes, Brother's Keeper is first and foremost a mystery. It wants to unravel the details and the final decision about the death of Bill Ward and whether the grizzled, mighty hand of his brother Delbert killed him. It lays out all the facts in a fair and impartial manner. Certain areas of exploration are glossed over (the fact that the police think Delbert and Bill were gay lovers is touched on, but quickly dropped) and there are definitely times when the courtroom material is swayed toward one vision of justice against another (as when the camera lingers on the bombastic, clueless medical examiner, or a god-like Delbert is caught in a halo of sunlight). And just like the police and the prosecutors and the expert witnesses argue, one does get the sense that these dumb-as-doorknobs good old boys just may be playing the public and their supporters for a bunch of suckers. This is a movie whose strength lies in its ambiguity. Instead of painting Delbert as a saint, a retarded rube tossed into a circumstance that he could never understand, the directors dribble hints, here and there, to suggest that the boys are more conspiratorial than confused. There is a rote, practiced mannerism to their responses. They never seem to share memories of Bill beyond his day of death. It's almost as though, if they let any other detail slip out, the rest of the truth will come cascading behind it. For everyone except Lyman, that is.
If one has to pinpoint the most heartbreaking aspect of Brother's Keeper, it would be the walking wounded ghost of a man named Lyman Ward. This shy, introverted soul who literally shakes from nerves and bashfulness has a courtroom sequence that's so rattling and distressing that it's just plain difficult to watch. You can see the lawyers, mouths full of leading questions, trying to get this truly naïve old man, mouth barely opening to speak, eyes constantly down toward the floor, to condemn his brother. They hurl depositions and affidavits at him that hint at Delbert's guilt. And yet he defends his sibling, retracting and recanting over and over. And still the attorneys fight on, trying to get that one damning line of testimony out onto the record. During a second day on the witness stand, Lyman just crumbles. His body shivers uncontrollably and his face winces in a secret internal pain that only he understands and suffers. As the judge calls a recess, the look in the prosecutor's eyes is clear: he thinks it's all an act. But we, the audience, have gotten to know Lyman. We have seen him ramble off in quick little steps, seeking the first place of shelter from the camera he can find. We have watched him tremble hysterically when asked simple, silly questions. The trauma and stress he is put under renders the mockery of Delbert's criminal case all the more disgusting. If Bill's death is the main uncertainty in Brother's Keeper, how the authorities in upstate New York could live with themselves after witnessing Lyman's devastation offers a separate, more startling area of inquiry.
This is all a very tragic story. It's about a loss of innocence, an innocence that may not have been all that valuable in the first place. The tumbledown shack the boys lived in, filled with garbage and the stink of horrendous personal hygiene, may represent the doorway into another world and a simpler way of life, but it also represents a tremendous step back in social skills and responsibility. Just like the way the imagery used by directors Berlinger and Sinofsky evokes a mournful passing of a certain way of life, the expressions of Delbert, Lyman, Roscoe, and the rest of Munnsville carry an empty sort of countenance that's simply sad. These are people unable to change, fallen between the cracks of progress and process to simply exist under their own, often misguided terms. One has to wonder how many of the townsfolk contributed to Delbert's defense on the lone prospect that all invasions from outsiders, no matter if they represent the law or government, be opposed at all costs. And one also has to consider that many of those offering aid do so with the full, unswerving knowledge that the town would rise up to help them as well. Maybe so. And maybe this blind faith in their sedentary ways is what finally makes the time, place, and people of Brother's Keeper so moving and poignant. We are witnessing the last of a dying breed, of neighborhood and fellowship as bond. As our society has become more distrusting and disinterested, the people of Munnsville mind their own business…and the business of their neighbors as well.
It's this vanishing prairie idealism that the movie captures brilliantly. With the addition of a startling, plaintive traditional music score (provided by Jay Unger and Molly Mason, the brilliant duo behind The Civil War's haunting soundtrack) that seems to recall the final distant drift of dance music from an ancient country fair's closing night, Brother's Keeper becomes a new American folktale, the oral tradition of story and moral that plays out perfectly and never once cheats its audience. Critics can argue that facts are missing and testimony is tainted by jump cuts and sequencing issues, but the plain truth is that Berlinger and Sinofsky stumbled upon a miraculous story of shyster versus simpleton with overtones of the bizarre and unique, and did everything in their power simply not to mess it up. In the subjects of Delbert, Lyman, and Roscoe Ward, they found the last remaining symbols of our once open country. In Roscoe we discover the friendly, personable personality that our nation has long felt it represented to the rest of the world. In Lyman, we see the scared and scarred little child, a grown man still afraid of his own shadow and yet able to get his backbreaking labor done. And then there's Delbert, the transitional figure. He is the wild child brought in from the forest, raised by the land and now forced to confront the realities of civilized society. But what those "oh so smart" students of sociology forget is that Delbert may be retarded, but he is not dumb. He can see the way the game is played. And once tamed, he can play it better than anyone. Brother's Keeper is an extraordinary example of ordinary people in inhuman conditions. But it also showcases how the most feral animal will eventually be broken, only to bite back at those who fought to control it.
IFC and Docurama have finally unearthed this brilliant movie for DVD and have given it a digital presentation of which to be proud. Brother's Keeper was shot on 16mm scraps and ends, cut together on an old machine in the director's den, and then blown up to 35mm. With all these happenstance processing pitfalls prepared to ruin it, the image offered on this disc is exceptional. There is grain at times, and some fogginess, but overall what we get is an evocative and artistic version of the directors' original vision. This is a full screen presentation, but Berlinger and Sinofsky had such a wonderful eye for composition and lighting (with the help of their fantastic cinematographer Douglas Cooper) that the lack of some manner of widescreen seems unimportant. The movie is mesmerizing to look at, 1.33:1 or not. On the sound side, Brother's Keeper is presented in simple Dolby Digital Stereo that is clean, confident and unexciting. The Wards do have a peculiar form of country bumpkin accent (sounds like a combination of Maine, Mississippi, and Mars) and a set of subtitles would have been nice. But once you get their patter pattern down, you'll have no trouble following their occasionally insightful and always witty banter.
But it's the extras that really make this DVD stand out. First up is a series of deleted scenes from the film, a kind of Holy Grail for those of us who consider this film endlessly fascinating. And these missing moments are definitely must see. The accompanying commentary track discusses the directors' decision not to include them but by the end, even they are convinced the scenes should never have been cut. Especially effective is a sequence called "Roscoe by the Falls," which features this jovial brother alone from his fellow siblings, sitting beside a breathtaking miniature waterfall, discussing his life as a boy. There are even some spoilers here for those unfamiliar with all the specifics about the boys and their relationship, and a long excerpt of testimony from the trial.
Also critical viewing is the hilarious short The Wards Take Manhattan. Originally conceived as the ending to the film, this ten-minute piece showcases the warm fall day when the Ward boys finally traveled from Munnsville and came to New York City to visit the directors. Their day of sightseeing and bartering with street vendors is magnificent. Even the nervous Lyman has a good time. In addition, there is a wonderful photo gallery, a nice filmography/biography of the filmmakers (they have gone on to have very successful careers, thanks to this film) and a unique trailer featuring Spaulding Gray in full monologue mode that has to be seen (and the facts behind it understood) to be appreciated.
Perhaps the best, and also the most frustrating, aspect of this DVD is the full-length commentary track by Berlinger and Sinofsky. There is a caveat for anyone going into the disc hoping for a blow-by-blow description of the shoot and circumstances surrounding the film. That stuff is here, but it is held up and hampered on all sides by a tremendous amount of egotism on the filmmaker's part. These guys just love themselves, and the movie they made, one whole heck of a lot. It's cute the way they pat themselves on the back over and over again, but when they start disingenuously inventing praise, it gets very irritating. Several times they will discuss how fate and timing lead to the creation of a memorable scene in the film. And then two seconds after thanking coincidence and accident, they take full credit for conceiving and constructing the moment. These are gifted movie makers that just can't distance themselves enough from the project to be 100% objective, not that their special film requires a great deal of critical analysis. But it would be nice of them to be a tad more humble and thankful that opportunity gave them this wonderful gift. Still, all ballooning self-importance aside, this is a detailed look at how the novice directors found the story, recorded and shaped it. They even do their own version of a Woodward/Bernstein "Deep Throat" style confession and finally reveal what they think really happened and their thoughts on Delbert's innocence/guilt. If you can accept their own version of their personal worth, then you will thoroughly enjoy this alternative narrative track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When it was released, Brother's Keeper was heralded by critics and movie scholars as a work of exceptional insight and beauty. It made many Top Ten lists and won numerous awards. And for a while, it seemed like the final word in non-fiction style filmmaking. And then a funny thing happened. Snobbish documentary organizations actually rallied against the film, saying that Berlinger and Sinofsky had "violated" rules of said genre and were therefore "not representative" of their type of movie. Then epics like Hoop Dreams and Crumb pushed the envelope on factual films even further. Suddenly, Brother's Keeper was no longer the gold standard. Heck, the duo's own Paradise Lost (which spawned its own sequel) usurped the Ward boys' story as the pair's best film work. All of which means that Brother's Keeper has seemingly lost its place in the pantheon of great movies. That should not be the case. This is a special film, one that tells a grand story evocatively and insightfully. A decade after its release, it's nice to see IFC and Docurama releasing this now seemingly "lost" classic. But it should never have been cast out into the wilderness in the first place.
It's funny now; the main characters in the story of Brother's Keeper are both dead. Bill died that fateful morning in 1990. His sibling, and accused killer, Delbert, joined him in 1998. For all anyone knows, Roscoe and Lyman are still alive, living in that filthy shack, tending to the farm. Or maybe the farm has disappeared completely, bought up in the ever-increasing urban sprawl of America. Roscoe, mouth full of chewing tobacco and eyes twinkling with unknown delight, would be 83. Lyman, his tender, tormented sibling, would be 79. If they too have gone off to meet the rest of the Ward clan in the hereafter, it would truly mark the end of an era, not just the fact that for a brief period of time in 1990 and 1991, the case of Delbert and Bill had captured a small amount of media attention. The Wards represented the last bastion of true country life. Sure, there are patches of it left: far out in the open spaces of the West; buried somewhere in the Great Smokey Mountains. But Roscoe and Lyman and even Bill were something special, something narrow and focused. They were connected irrevocably to the land. And in many ways, Delbert dragged them kicking and screaming into modern civilized society and changed them forever. Like that rural rodent who longed for the peace and tranquility of his simple life, the Wards saw the "big city" and wanted no part of it. But unlike Mr. Mouse, and very much like Thomas Wolfe once wrote, they really couldn't go back home again. If the amazing film Brother's Keeper teaches us anything, it's that, once tainted, innocence is lost forever. Just like the fading landscape of rustic America.
Brother's Keeper is found not guilty and is free to go. Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky are hereby found guilty of rampant self-importance and are sentenced to 30 days in the Moviemaker Modesty Wing of the Commentary Correctional Facility, where they will be served a non-stop diet of crow, face egg, and humble pie.
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