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Movie Review

Everyone likes Earl Brooks. He's rich and successful, a loving husband and caring father. There's only one tiny problem: Earl Brooks kills people.

It's his biggest talent, really—his obsession. He knows it's wrong, but he just can't seem to stop. When his wife thinks he's glazing pottery late at night, Brooks is actually shooting strangers in the head and posing the corpses as if they were erotic mannequins. He takes pictures of his victims and then disappears from the scene, leaving no sign he was there at all. He vacuums the house, burns his clothes ... even shoots people while the gun's in a plastic bag. The only clue he leaves behind are the bloody thumbprints of his victims.

He wants to stop. Or at least that's what he tells Marshall, his imaginary friend, all the time.

"Why do you fight it so hard, Earl?" Marshall whispers, like a devil on his shoulder. He lurks in the back seat of Brooks' Volvo, hovers as Brooks researches his victims on the computer. For Brooks, killing is an addiction. For Marshall, it's a great way to spend an evening.

But Brooks' secret may be catching up with him. At the very least, it's getting more complicated to keep under wraps, what with a determined detective (Tracy Atwood) poking around, an unwanted wanna-be killer apprentice (Mr. Smith) blackmailing him and Brooks' own daughter (Jane) unwittingly deciding to follow in daddy's blood-soaked footsteps.

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Positive Elements

Few of us are serial killers. But many struggle with aspects of addiction. And while remaining somewhat uncomfortable with taking the risk of minimizing the differences between murder and, say, cigarettes, I can see how Brooks is a surprisingly (albeit sporadically) sympathetic conduit for how people prone to addiction process problems.

Brooks says he doesn't want to kill and, at first, fights the urge to do so. When the film opens, we discover he's gone without killing for two years—a long stretch of "staying clean," we're led to believe. He tells Marshall several times that he's never going to kill again. But Marshall knows Brooks is lying. And perhaps Brooks knows it, too.

"It can be very addictive," Brooks tells Smith. "It can ruin your life."

This is a man who wants to believe he's 98 percent good, and that if he could just get the remaining 2 percent under control, he'd be OK. This is how addicts often view themselves. In fact, they sometimes even see themselves as two different people to make their habits more internally palatable. At some level, Mr. Brooks exposes the folly in that kind of thinking.

[Spoiler Warning] The first time we see Brooks truly grieving over his habit is when he discovers his daughter is also a murderer. It's a "sins of the father" moment for Brooks—even though she can't possibly know what he's done—and he breaks down in tears.

While ironic coming from a stone-cold killer, Brooks begs Jane not to get an abortion. Atwood embodies determination and a passion to bring a killer to justice.

Spiritual Content

Mr. Brooks begins and ends with Brooks whispering Reinhold Niebuhr's prayer of serenity, which begins, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." He prays God will help him trust that "He will make all things right if I surrender to His will; that I may be reasonably happy in this life, and supremely happy with Him forever in the next. Amen."

After Brooks kills, he prays, "Please forgive me, please forgive me, please forgive me," repeating the phrase again and again.

Sexual Content

Brooks' first onscreen victims are two lovers engaged in fully nude and explicitly rendered sex, complete with movement and groans. Bare flesh, including repeated shots of the woman's breasts, fills the frame as a sort of gratuitous shock-enhancer. (Flashbacks to the killings and the crime-scene investigation also seem to revel in the sexualized violence of the gruesome act.)

Later, Brooks and Smith kill another pair of lovers; this time they're mostly clothed. (Her blouse is open revealing a bra as he hugs and kisses her.)

It's no accident that the camera fixates on the sexual activities of Brooks' victims. Both Brooks and Smith consider killing to be a part of sexual gratification. While naked, Brooks pores over pictures of his (naked) victims, and he compares choosing a target with falling in love. The right one, he tells Smith, "makes your heart beat faster."

Smith often took photos of Brooks' first victims while they made love (they liked to keep their curtains open), and he talks of using the images as "visual aids" later. But watching Brooks kill them was a far bigger "rush," he says.

Violent Content

Mr. Brooks is three parts disturbing psychological thriller, one part twisted gore-fest devoted to sensationalizing the act of cold-blooded murder. Tossed and tangled nude bodies with visible bullet holes in their heads makes for a grating introduction to Brooks' nocturnal excursions. But it's only a prelude to what follows.

While Brooks and Smith are closing in on their victims, another killer, known as the Hangman, escapes from prison and begins killing again. We see one of his hanging victims punctured by countless syringes in a house where the windows and walls are covered in blood. Then, as the camera lingers, Hangman shoots his girlfriend and himself, spattering blood on the walls of an apartment stairwell.

One man is beaten, killed and nearly decapitated by a shovel. Another is stabbed in the neck with a pair of scissors, with extremely bloody, you might say fountainously bloody, results.

Atwood is thrown into a moving van (that is, a van that's moving) and must fight for her life. She's saved when the van crashes, sending her hurtling through the air and onto the hood of a taxi. (We later see doctors stitching up her bloody scalp.) Atwood overpowers and beats up her partner to avoid being taken into custody. When she gets into a lengthy shoot out with Hangman, we see several bullets find their marks.

Crude or Profane Language

Brooks rarely if ever swears. Marshall, on the other hand, rarely strings a sentence together without including the f-word. All told, the film doles out nearly 30. Characters also use the s-word about five times. "God," "g--d--n," "lord" and "Jesus Christ" are all used in a derogatory fashion. Smith makes an obscene gesture.

Drug and Alcohol Content

It's said that Hangman is a steroid freak. In one scene we see syringes and medicine bottles lying all around. Champagne makes a couple of appearances. Brooks downs a mixed drink on a plane.

Other Negative Elements

It could easily be argued that the film tries to make the point that serial killers become such because of some kind of genetic variable passed down through the generations.

Conclusion

Mr. Brooks is Silence of the Lambs meets Harvey—about a suave, smart killer with an imaginary friend. On one level it asks an important but disturbing question, particularly for Christians struggling to make their way in a fallen world: What separates sin and sickness? What happens when the prayers don't seem to work?

"I don't enjoy this, Mr. Smith," Brooks says. "I do this because I'm addicted to it."

But that's only partially true. In the end, he does show a certain joy in killing—a steel-eyed smile when his victim knows the game is up. Later, he tells Marshall (again) that he's done with killing, but Marshall (again) knows he's lying. Why? Because he can't stop. And part of him doesn't want to. For him, murder is sexy. Death is life. And the audience, at least for a while, is made to believe it.

Brooks is a sick man, saddled with desires he knows are wrong and which he tries, sometimes, to resist. But we know there's more at play here. He has remorse, yes, but it's for himself. His victims are prey—their end is simply a means for him to satisfy his cravings. They never become human, to him or to his audience.

Mr. Brooks is a resourceful bit of storytelling with a top-notch cast, an interesting gimmick and some unexpected twists and turns. But it also glamorizes violence, sensualizes death and dehumanizes the killed even as it humanizes the killer. And that combination of artistry and villainy can be especially sinister.

Because, in the end, moviegoers will find themselves rooting for Brooks. We see his struggles and we know how deeply he cares for his family. We're made to appreciate his skill and his smarts. We want to believe he'll stop his killing, but gradually become his enablers, just as he enables his daughter. Worst of all, and all too similar to Brooks himself, we're asked to take pleasure in watching nameless, faceless people die.

When Brooks kills for his daughter, Marshall asks him how he feels.

"Dirty," Brooks responds.

"It'll pass," Marshall quietly soothes in return.

And for Brooks, it does. But dirty is a feeling I hope doesn't quickly fade for moviegoers who—sometimes eagerly, sometimes unknowingly—stand in for Mr. Smith by paying good money to watch Mr. Brooks kill.

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