Friday, October 24, 2014

1980 Week: Brubaker

          Although his entire career is defined by conflict between artistic aspirations, political inclinations, and the seductive pull of movie stardom, Robert Redford hit an especially perilous juncture in 1980. He made his directorial debut with Ordinary People, in which he did not appear, and the project eventually earned Redford an Oscar for Best Director. His commitments to the U.S. Film Festival (later to become the Sundance Film Festival) were consuming more of his time. And the film industry’s steady slide toward corporate control was making it more and more difficult to secure financing for the kinds of grown-up movies that Redford produced in the ’70s. A moment of reflection was in order, so Redford took a four-year hiatus from acting following the release of Brubaker.
          These remarks are provided to give Brubaker some film-history context, since the movie is only so interesting on its own merits. An old-fashioned melodrama about prison reform, the picture boasts fine performances, an intense storyline, and unassailable morality. Yet it’s strangely forgettable in many ways. One problem is that the movie fictionalizes an amazing real-life saga, which has the effect of making the movie seem relatively trivial. (The lead character is based upon a reformer named Thomas Murton.) Another problem is the movie’s weak approach to characterization. The makers of Brubaker are far more concerned with demonstrating righteous indignation—and with showing the ugly extremes of inmate mistreatment—than they are with introducing viewers to distinct personalities. When combined with the film’s tendency to lapse into ornate speechifying whenever the title character decides to explain what’s wrong with the world, Brubaker ends up feeling more like a position paper than a proper drama. The movie is entertaining, if somewhat grim and pedantic, but it’s not vital.
          Redford plays Henry Brubaker, a warden who goes undercover as an inmate at the Arkansas prison he’s been hired to supervise. After witnessing abuse, bribery, graft, rape, and violence, Brubaker makes himself known to the prison population and then begins a crusade for reform that rattles officials in state government. The film’s large cast of top-shelf character actors is mostly wasted, since the picture is designed as the soapbox on which Redford stands while cataloging the ills of the Arkansas prison system. So, as pleasurable as it is to see Jane Alexander, Wilford Brimley, Matt Clark, Morgan Freeman, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, Yaphet Kotto, Tim McIntire, M. Emmet Walsh, and others ply their craft, they all get crowded off the screen by vignettes that sanctify Redford’s character. However, since the making of Brubaker included behind-the-scenes tumult—original director Bob Rafelson was replaced, during production, with Cool Hand Luke helmer Stuart Rosenberg—the workmanlike nature of the picture is understandable.
          After his many exemplary achievements of the ’70s (All the President’s Men, The Candidate, Jeremiah Johnson, The Sting, The Way We Were), Redford had set an impossibly high bar for himself. Thus, seeing as how Brubaker arrived on the heels of yet another mediocre picture that squeaked out box-office success, The Electric Horseman (1979), it’s no wonder Redford wanted time to consider where to put his energies.

Brubaker: FUNKY


Unknown said...

I like to believe this movie is the genesis of the slow clap.

Unknown said...

A suspension of belief is required during Brubaker's undercover stint as a prisoner. A man as handsome as that, yet not even a come-on from sex-starved fellow inmates, let alone rape? Not that I'd want to see that.