Brubaker September 5, 2022
2 Hrs., 11 Mins.
enry Brubaker (Robert Redford), Wakefield State Prison’s incoming — and reform-minded — warden, has heard all the rumors about unsafe conditions and rampant mismanagement at his new place of work. So to get a good sense of where his priorities should lie, he poses as an incoming prisoner ahead of his first day — a masquerade giving Brubaker (1980) its extended prologue. He keeps himself
inconspicuous (though bribes the prison’s barber, ordered to shave every new prisoner’s head, to let him keep his corn-yellow shag) and watches as the rumors prove themselves not just true but worse than he possibly could have conceived. This stretch of the film, which quickly hooks you in to Brubaker’s cause, might be its most harrowing: a simulated, yet no less real, plunge into a nightmare of unbridled physical and sexual assault; open corruption on the staff level; slave labor; squalid living conditions; and other horrors.
After disclosing his true identity, Brubaker terminates any employee whose misconduct can be proven. And he makes immediate minor changes that nonetheless can make worlds of difference by way of quality of life: an order of new boots, a revocation of the buzzcut rule. But it’s predictably far harder to ratify more massive overhauls with the prison’s board. Most of its dishonest members don’t want a reformed prison where they won’t stand to continue reaping the same big, underhanded financial benefits.
The ultimate message of the 1969-set Brubaker, which fictionalizes Tom Murton and Joe Hyams’ 1967 investigative book Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal, is that the reform as envisioned by the idealistic Brubaker isn’t enough. The prison industrial complex is so inhumane to its core that it should not exist at all. It’s an invigoratingly progressive sentiment not often expressed in a mainstream movie. It would leave more of a bruise if the film, almost surreally, didn’t end literally with a slow clap and a jubilant variation of Lalo Schifrin’s score, eagerer to celebrate Brubaker’s failed efforts than sit with the final dark realities underneath that failure. It’s like we’re supposed to be happy, albeit with some bittersweetness, and not more depressed. (That slow clap is led by the characteristically great Yaphet Kotto, a prisoner trusty who had bonded with Brubaker; it feels beneath him.)
Because of what it stands for, and because Stuart Rosenberg’s recreations of the cruelties endemic to prison life are so uncommonly frank, Brubaker can be stirring. But it puzzlingly is never as interested in any of its characters as it is in moving the story along — getting you to admire Brubaker’s hopeless tenacity. And so it never really comes alive, feels quite true. It’s oddly mum with details around its title character’s life. Not even hyperbolically, we don’t know anything about him. All we know is that he wants to change this place, and that we can trust him because he doesn’t have a Southern accent (like all the very-worst characters in the film) and is so remarkably physically beautiful that that in itself may be an outward indication of his virtue. He’s a cipher giving a nice-looking face to humane ideological points. Not helpfully, Redford’s performance can feel a little phoned-in — politician-performative.
No one in Brubaker feels like anything more than representative of an idea. You can tell the movie is an adaptation of a book-length investigative article. It’s the ugliness uncovered, not as much the human stories affected by them, most fleshed out, on account of space and lurid interest. The human stories are only spotlit when they function well as ledes for a new chapter’s beginning. The only actor to memorably break through is Morgan Freeman, who very early in the film plays an erratic prisoner whose anguish and rage feel so true that you’re momentarily taken out of a movie that rarely cuts below surfaces. (Actually, Richard Ward, who plays an inmate serving a 35-year-long sentence whom Brubaker discovers has maliciously been kept here an additional three years, breaks through, too, as someone so beaten down by his circumstances that he’s almost trapped in a haze, too numbed to fight against them anymore.)
Brubaker finally comes to epitomize what beleaguers so many so-called message movies: elucidating the macro issue of the hour with such hyperfixation that anything on the micro remains decorative, or like a treat if something more insignificant to the larger picture is momentarily indulged in. It’s an admirable movie that never becomes much more than that. B-