Our review of Brubaker (Blu-ray), published May 20th, 2013, is also available.
The most wanted man in Wakefield Prison is the warden
Henry Brubaker is the new warden of Wakefield State Penitentiary. He spends his first few days "on the job" disguised as a prisoner. There he witnesses first hand the fetid conditions and inhuman atrocities carried out by the staff and inmates. After revealing his true identity, he vows to make radical changes in the way the facility is run. These alterations are met with skepticism from the convicts, anger from the trusty guards in "power" and outright rejection from the local community who've long milked the jail for cheap labor, free food and bogus work contracts. Initially supportive of his actions, the prison board begins to withdraw its authorization of crucial improvements. But when Brubaker discovers that a large piece of prison owned property might house a mass grave of the facility's murder victims, he suddenly seems to have the State officials right where he wants them. But is this really the case? Can Brubaker honestly effect change, or is the system so deeply corrupt that it will only end up destroying him?
You can hear the barker's voice beaming across the marquee: Welcome to Torture Prison, where we haven't met a cruel and unusual punishment that we aren't afraid to use over and over again! Part Cool Hand Luke jailhouse messiah, mostly China Syndrome style political and social pontification, Brubaker really freaked the filmgoing public and shocked the social activists when it hit the big screen 23 years ago. Partially based on the true story of Tom Murton, an Arkansas prison warden who uncovered horrendous abuses in the State's penal system, this tale of a new high-minded, reform mandated superintendent coming in to clean up what was basically the epitome of fraud and corruption had a ripped from the headlines, new car smell quality that made its heavy-handed hero worship seem strangely seductive. People just couldn't imagine that human beings, no matter what their legal status, could be treated in such an inhumane fashion. And that local yokel businessmen and politicians would prefer to grease their palms and turn a blind eye than actually abide by the laws and Constitution of the United States. But Brubaker exposed that very thing, presented in a clear, concise—and thanks to its lead's then-superstar sex symbol status—attractive fashion. Both Murton (in real life) and the screenplay used the intriguing ploy of having our hero "disguise" himself as a prisoner for a few days to get a feel of the work farm from the "inside out." And this conceit was well conceived, since we got a very eye (not to mention wound) opening introduction to the human rights violations at hand: beatings, shakedowns, graft, slave labor, murder, rape, brutality, and individual indignity. In 1980, Brubaker reminded the general public that buried within almost all penitentiaries were abuses, be they judicial, political, financial, or human.
Boy, what a difference a few decades makes. In our current social ideal, where the media and politicians have painted the picture of lazy inmates sipping coladas and watching free taxpayer supported cable television as the standard of jailhouse life, the horrendous conditions of Wakefield Prison Farm magically transform into "a return to the basics of the penal system" ideology. States like Florida and Alabama have re-jumped on the chain gang bandwagon a mere quarter century after previous politicos called it "demeaning" and "disgusting." True, no one will argue that prisoners should be allowed to electrocute each other with homemade shock treatment devices, but as for the bad food and squalid living conditions, you can just envision the candidates' buzzword-filled blathering lambasting "luxuries" and "fair standards of living" in favor of some rats and a daily serving of mutton and broth. In light of this current shift in acceptability, Brubaker seems like the good old-fashioned philosophy of penal punishment perhaps taken a tad too far. We can't have people living in their own filth, but we could use an occasional mass grave along a forgotten pasture to remind the convicts who's in charge. All jest aside, a movie like Brubaker just seems too surreal, too impossible in our well-documented, investigative journalistic world. Maybe back during the Geraldo's '70s this exposé could work, but in 2003 it reads wrong. Also, movies like The Shawshank Redemption and Murder in the First have reinvented the prison drama, removing the layer of liberal grandstanding and rehabilitation to paint stories of the men, not the method, inside the big house. Yes, this can and does result in a definite romanticizing of what is basically a brutal Hellhole of a life, but films like these are not beating you over the head with their point. Brubaker cannot exist without a bleeding heart rant, a holier than thou speech or, at least, a few long noble glances to oversell its conviction.
Still, all dogma aside, this is a pretty solid movie with good acting and an even better concept of atmosphere and tone. Redford, usually more mannered in his performances than he is here, makes us believe in his man against the system situation. He passes as both a lowly convict and a "take charge" warden with ease and skill. One does get the feeling, though that he may be biding his time with this project, as 1980 was also the year of his Oscar for directing the brilliant Ordinary People. Also fine is Tim McIntire as head "white" trustee Rauch and Yaphet Kotto as lead "black" trustee Coombes. Both are given enigmatic, hard to read personalities in the film and it's thanks to the excellent work of these men that their true intentions (McIntire, greed; Kotto, compassion) comes through. The rest of the cast is rounded out with character actors (and some small names that have since become big) you've seen a million times before and since Brubaker. Of special note is the one scene freak-out by Morgan Freeman as a death row inmate driven insane by the horrendous living conditions he is faced with, and M. Emmet Walsh, turning on the sleazy southern charm, as a lumberyard owner none too happy about the new "sheriff" in town. And director Stuart Rosenberg (Cool Hand Luke, The Drowning Pool) has got the neo-gothic nastiness of the Deep South down to a slick, subtle science. He turns Wakefield into a maze of hidden menace and the surrounding serene farmland into a haunted battlefield. He does love the long distance confrontation a little too much (two characters speaking to each other from what seems like several dozen yards of separation) but overall, he gets good strong work from his cast and creates a aura of desperation that cries out for Brubaker's reforms. If you can get beyond the endless political speeches disguised as meetings with the prison board and the relentless cruelty, you may find Brubaker a compelling drama. Others will see it as overkill in the guise of social conscious.
The final bit of news about Brubaker's release on DVD is the hapless transfer and aural presentation we are given by 20th Century Fox. Even in an anamorphic widescreen presentation, respecting the director's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the movie looks just awful. Not a complete fiasco along the lines of Artisan's direct from VHS vomit known as Shadows Run Black, but there is a definite third or fourth generation quality to the image. The colors are faded (and it's not an intentional design motif, ala Shawshank) and tend to the blue/green range of the negative, as if the master used was old and drained of its reds. Worse are the moments when the picture darkens to almost obscurity. Without detail, the action becomes a blur and the screen a black/brown wash. But if you think that's bad, wait until you hear the soundtrack. Tinny, over modulated, and suffering from moments where the film's original aural elements disappear as if having fallen off-microphone, Brubaker becomes a challenge not only to the eye but to the eardrum as well. Some of the worst incidents occur inside prison hallways, where one person is speaking to another. Almost consistently, one voice is intelligible while the other sounds like it is coming from the end of a sewer pipe. Add these unfortunate sonic and visual issues to the lack of extras (all we get are TV spots for Brubaker and trailers for other Redford/Fox titles) and this DVD becomes a digital platter for completists only.
In many ways, the print issue with Brubaker reflects directly on the film's current level of effectiveness. Both look extremely dated and have not held up well over the years. The cause of prison reform is a very weighty subject for dramatic entertainment. Brubaker, unfortunately, does not have the internal structure or fairness of politics to support itself.
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