Cool Hand Luke, Papillon, and plenty others ranging from classics to good to just bad. It's official. I'll add the Prison movie to the list, and here's a new one, 1980's Brubaker.
A new shipment of prisoners is arriving at the Wakefield State Prison, among them a quiet, mysterious prisoner who puts his head down and minds his own business. The prisoner quickly sees how horrific prison life is from abusive guards -- both physical, mental and sexual abuse -- to cramped living quarters, insect-ridden food to corruption on all levels of how the prison is run. After several days though, the prisoner reveals himself as Henry Brubaker (Robert Redford), the prison's new warden who's been tasked with cleaning up the prison, both for the prisoners and as a government-funded location. His appearance scares countless people to death, their corrupt, nasty world about to get thrown for a loop. His methods are demanding and fast-acting, making many people incredibly nervous. With pressure from inside and out, can Brubaker clean up the prison? Or has he pushed too far and endangered his own life?
From director Stuart Rosenberg, 'Brubaker' asks some interesting questions. Prison reform is meant to make sure that prisoners are treated like decent human beings. They don't deserve to be beaten, abused, violated and treated like dirt. Or do they? As the movie points out in snippets, these men are criminals, found guilty of a variety of crimes from rape to murder, robbery to manslaughter and all sorts of pleasant stuff in between. How well do they deserve to be treated considering the crimes they've been found guilty of committing? Should we rehabilitate prisoners so they can reenter the world as better individuals or simply let them waste away in under-funded prisons? The answer is probably somewhere in between. And enough of the social commentary, on with the movie!
'Brubaker' is a good movie, a story featuring some social commentary that for the most part avoids getting too obvious with its message. It is based on the book Accomplices to the Crime: The Arkansas Prison Scandal, the warden posing as a prisoner made up for the sake of the film. This is dark stuff from the get-go, Brubaker's undercover mission incredibly uncomfortable to watch. Things only get worse as he undertakes his new job, so many people around him -- inside and outside the prison -- trying to stop him, or at least slow him down. 'Brubaker' was filmed at Junction City Prison (recently closed) in Ohio, giving the story a filthy, seedy look that adds to the tension and the reality Rosenberg was aiming for. It doesn't feel like some Hollywood studio posing as a prison. It is a prison, and that goes a long ways toward authenticity. Also worth mentioning is composer Lalo Schifrin's score, equal parts underplayed and quiet with fast-moving, adrenaline-pumping sequences.
Who best to lead the way as a progressive prison warden who's not interested in whips, abuses, punishments and beatings? Why Robert Redford of course, at the height of his popularity. In his personal life, Redford has gotten behind and backed causes he believed to be worthwhile so this doesn't feel forced as an acting role. I would have liked some more background about the Brubaker character -- how did he end up here? What drives him? What's his motivation -- but an intelligent, thoughtful warden who becomes almost obsessed with accomplishing his mission is a great hero to lead the way. Redford was, is and will be a likable star to lead the way in a movie, and he's the best thing going here. Also look for Jane Alexander as Lillian Gray, his government connection, their background and relationship hinted at but never specified.
There's plenty of solid supporting parts to back Redford, starting with Yaphet Kotto as Coombes, a trusty who Brubaker counts on to help his reform get rolling while also questioning what's going on, and David Keith as Larry Lee Bullen, a lifer, a prisoner who's piled up three felonies and earned himself a life sentence. The scenes among Redford, Kotto and Keith are some of the strongest throughout the 132-minute movie. As for other trustees, look for Matt Clark, Tim McIntire, Everett McGill, Val Avery, and Joe Spinell. Murray Hamilton plays the evil Governor with Albert Salmi, M. Emmet Walsh, and Wilford Brimley also representing the evil System.
Just a good movie with a strong cast and an interesting story that takes some surprising twists as the it develops. The ending gets a little heavy-handed with a slow clap and all, but the movie as a whole is easy to recommend.
Brubaker (1980): ***/****