Earl Brooks is no ordinary serial killer. He's got a secret closet where identical serial-killer outfits hang above a row of matching black boots, and he has all the latest in serial-killer gadgets. He's the Batman of serial killers.
As played by Kevin Costner in the dysfunctional thriller "Mr. Brooks," the character is a prodigious taker of lives. He lives to kill, egged on by a wisecracking doppelganger -- part famished id, part rationalizing ego -- named Marshall (William Hurt). The only problem is that Earl wants to stop. He has a beautiful wife (Marg Helgenberger), a daughter in college (Danielle Panabaker), a house straight out of Architectural Digest and, in the film's opening scenes, he's honored as man of the year of Portland, Ore.
The whole killing thing is starting to wear on him, but he might as well face it -- he's addicted to blood.
The movie is a bold variant on the serial-killer genre with some significant deviations. Written by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon (the pair scripted "Stand By Me" among some lesser-known credits) and directed by Evans, "Mr. Brooks" treats murder as an addiction. Earl is viewed less as a monster than as someone who has difficulty suppressing a particularly egregious appetite.
The comparison is taken to the extent that Earl attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings (specifying only that he is an addict) and periodically mutters the "Serenity Prayer" in times of weakness. Evans and Gideon never really succeed in selling the idea that serial killing is a disease -- which would require a degree of realism that the slick, over-plotted "Mr. Brooks" doesn't otherwise aspire to. They seem to be content with occupying the audience with a series of twists and jolts.
The filmmakers have constructed a complex web of subplots that abut the main story line and include the desire of a fan of Mr. Brooks' work (Dane Cook) to go on a ride-along, the unexpected return of Brooks' daughter from college, the ongoing divorce woes of a detective (Demi Moore) working the case and ... the escape of another killer the detective once put away. To their credit, Evans and Gideon somehow manage to tie them all together in the end, but in the meantime, much of the buildup is a snooze.
Although there are weak spots throughout, the nasty divorce negotiations of Det. Atwood (Moore), a multimillionaire cop (don't ask) whose sleazy ex (Jason Lewis) is seeking spousal support, particularly take away from the film's suspense. Actually, anything that steals focus from the existential patter between Earl and Marshall weakens the movie.
Marshall is seen and heard only by Earl Brooks, and the interplay between the two is, at times, inspired. It gives the film a darkly comic component that propels it through some lulls and keeps it from becoming too self-important. The "relationship," which provides most of what we know about what makes Brooks tick, likely could have been mined further.
Like many movie stars, Costner doesn't always get his due as an actor. He's played criminals before -- notably in Clint Eastwood's underappreciated "A Perfect World" -- but never before has he appeared to have so much fun being bad.
He's given some silly things to do, such as the near-orgasmic trance he falls into while killing, but Costner approaches the character simply as a man with objectives. He doesn't play Brooks as demented but carries out a series of discordant actions that illustrate the lunacy.
The supreme confidence the actor brings to his roles is what makes him effective. We believe him as a ballplayer because he can handle a bat. We buy him as a cowboy because he looks comfortable on a horse and with a gun. Here, he's a credible businessman, father and, yes, serial killer, because he approaches them all with equal deliberation.
The film probably tilts the balance too far in favor of Mr. Brooks at the expense of the uninspired Det. Atwood. There's never really a moment when the audience isn't rooting for Brooks, and more of a "Silence of the Lambs" equilibrium between the two would have yielded a more rewarding film.
"Mr. Brooks." MPAA rating: R for strong bloody violence, some graphic sexual content, nudity and language. Running time: 2 hours. In general release.