The new warden of a prison farm in the Deep South of the U.S. poses as an in-mate in order to understand the problems within. What he discovers is an institution festering with corruption, brutality, rape and murder. When his true identity is revealed, Brubaker (Robert Redford) begins a program of liberal reforms. He cracks down on local townsfolk using the prisoners as slave labour and wins the support of the Governor's aide (Jane Alexander) but not the prison commissioner (Murray Hamilton) whose private agenda is anything but honourable.
Review by Keith Lofthouse:
In most of Robert Redford's more serious roles his golden boy good looks has always made him seem much larger than life, and here as the reform-minded warden assigned to the sadistic hell hole that is the Wakefield Prison Farm, he is "too soft and too pretty." Thomas O. Murton, the short, fat and balding real-life reformer on whom Brubaker is based, used those very same words when Redford was cast.
Redford knew that he was the problem and barely makes an effort to bring colour and character to the role and the original director Bob Rafelson (Five Easy Pieces) probably knew it when he king-hit producer Ron Silverman and got himself fired. Stuart Rosenberg got Rafelson's job because he cut his teeth on chain gang movies, having directed Paul Newman in the ever-popular Cool Hand Luke 13 years before.
When Murton arrived at Tucker Farm, Arkansas in 1968, he found that the in-mates had taken over the asylum. The prison was run by gun-toting trusties, who presided over a regime of rape and torture and dispensed supplies that were either stolen or sold on to profiteers on both sides of the barbed wire fence. Local landowners courted the trusties who were offered kickbacks to provide prison labour for the harvesting of crops, the digging of swimming pools...and maybe a few graves. Tucker was the only prison, anywhere, to generate a $1 million surplus and so the state turned a blind eye to the rackets...until Murton discovered that another $2 million was "slipping through the system" and that the prison was directly responsible for 200 murders!
When Brubaker first arrives at Wakefield, manacled and in uniform, the other in-mates seem not to notice the strong physique and the film star looks, but he suffers in silence and is unreasonably spared from the beatings, the bullying and the sexual brutality. Morgan Freeman is seen in a brief but electrifying scene as a death-row prisoner who breaks out of his dungeon and tries to strangle a young in-mate. Brubaker intervenes but curiously we see or hear nothing of Freeman again; nor do we hear more of a young man whose wounded and bleeding body is dumped like a pile of garbage on the floor of a bus.
Once Brubaker reveals his true self, he immediately gets to work improving the food and the clothing and disarming the convict guards who had earlier killed "runaways" without compunction. Brubaker's reforms are encouraged by governor's aide Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander) but she is pragmatic enough to let sleeping dogs lie, urging the new warden to help the living, before exhuming the dead. "You can't reform the system," she reasons, "if you're not in it." The loose-ended script, however, doesn't allow Brubaker much more than white knighthood and so we learn precious little about the man (apart from his vanity) and nothing about his prior or personal life. When he first comes to Wakefield, he is not beyond slipping the barber a tip to ensure his goldilocks stay in place, but he can't be swayed by the peace offering of chocolate prune cake by a smarmy local (M. Emmett Walsh), who became rich on convict labour and repaid them by building a roof over the barracks that collapsed.
A story that needed to be told; that might have been better told with more care in the (Oscar nominated) script and more flair from the director, Brubaker is a grim but absorbing muckraker detailing a catalogue of appalling incidents and revelations that are all the more shocking for their truth. Those depressed by it will lament that it lacks humanity and that its ultimate view is gloomily pessimistic. Murton lost his job after just 11 months because he was too good at it. He ruffled too many feathers and found where the skeletons were buried. "A grand jury considered indicting me for grave robbing," he said. "They were more interested in why the (bodies) were dug up than why they were buried." Murton endorsed the film with faint praise for its "90 percent accuracy."
Published August 26, 2004
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BRUBAKER: DVD (M)
CAST: Robert Redford, Jane Alexander, Morgan Freeman
DIRECTOR: Stuart Rosenberg
SCRIPT: W. D. Richter
RUNNING TIME: 125 minutes
PRESENTATION: 1.85:1 Anamorphic widescreen. Dolby 2.0 Surround
SPECIAL FEATURES: None
DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment
DVD RELEASE: August 23, 2004