Though Brubaker is best known as a Robert Redford vehicle, it really should be known as a Yaphet Kotto vehicle. Kotto, the actor best known – unfortunately, because he’s had a lot of memorable roles – as Al Giardello in Homicide: Life on the Streets plays Dickie Coombes, an inmate on the prison-board in a collectivist prison. Redford, of course, plays the title role of Brubaker, a prison reformer. And grinds it into the ground with hubris and self-aggrandizement.
Directed by the unsung Stuart Rosenberg, who’s other noteworthy films include Cool Hand Luke, The Amityville Horror, The Laughing Policeman and The Pope of Greenwich Village, Brubaker starts off strong. For the first 25 minutes we are treated to a montage-like look at prison life. Though the camera frequently follows Redford, he’s nearly silent for the entire time. It’s fascinating as far as character introductions go: Rosenberg and screenwriter W.D. Richter rely on our preconceived notions of a prison system, but throw them for a slight loop when we realize that the guards and those doling out punishment are inmates themselves. For awhile it feels like Tango and Cash taken to a 70s NY film (though it was made in 1980).
Then, in an overdone, histrionic moment, featuring a performance by a young Morgan Freeman…Redford speaks. I’m no Robert Redford hater. The man has taken some unforgettable roles including those in The Sting, Butch Cassidy, The Hot Rock and All The President’s Men. Great stuff, all of those. But his turn in Brubaker is so self-indulgent and, even when he’s put in his place, the camera and action still screams for him.
Brubaker comes out of hiding. He’s been working undercover this whole time (the first 25 minutes, that is). He’s actually the prison reformer and he’s taking over this joint! Clean out the bad! Bring in the good! Democracy! No more punishment! Men treated as men! As equals!
In theory, this sounds good. And of course the irony is that it’s not the inmates that are the ultimate enemy, but those outside the walls – the politicians and other so called reformers. All is well and good for awhile until Brubaker starts uncovering some dark secrets. Namely, the bodies buried in the nearby field.
Part of the reason that Brubaker (the film and the man) feels so self-important is the script, written for the notoriously picky Redford, which cannot bring itself to tear away from this man, constantly focusing on his internal struggle. Simple moments like a cold can of beer to the forehead take on weight, and a weight that’s unnecessary when viewed in comparison to the man’s immediate surroundings (ie the other prisoners).
This is certainly a film that would have benefited from multiple perspectives. Kotto’s Coombes, probably the most complex character in the film, gets significant screentime, but always as supporting. Fine – the film wasn’t written for him. But his story and emotions are more fully fleshed out and well-rounded. He’s a much more sympathetic character given his unprivileged post and position, and his internal struggle is more deeply rooted in the prison system of which he is far more a part of. It’s the fatal flaw in a film who’s left turn is from interesting cinematic/social view to soapbox standing.
This is all the more unfortunate because Rosenberg has some skills with the camera. Below are several still images representing a scene where Brubaker sits at a table arguing with his superiors and various political figures. They hate him and want him out.
These first four shots introduce us to some of the players at the meeting. Significant here is shot #2, which features Murray Hamilton as John Deach – Brubaker’s immediate antagonist. Notice how he’s framed front-and-center and is second in the sequence. He’s literally in the middle of the frame, and then also, when taken with the other images of the men in profile, is literally in the center of the men. He’s the boss. The foreground elements puts the camera at table-level, perhaps implying a POV.
Here we finally open up the space a bit, moving away from close-ups. We start to get a sense of where people are and of the room.
These three shots represent the first view of a Brubaker ally – our first image. The cut is then to a dolly shot (the last two images below), which finally reveals Brubaker. He’s the one whose back we see in the last image above. This shot further opens up the space, establishes where Brubaker is in relationship to the others, and, perhaps most importantly, visually pits him against the senator (the blonde man in the blue-gray suit), who will play an important role later in the film.
This is an important series of shots, as it visually establishes the main players aside from the senator. Our first glimpse of Brubaker – the first shot above – is a dolly, where he is partially obscured. That we immediately cut back to Deach following this less-than-favorable shot of Brubaker implies Deach’s power. A cut to the only real female character in the film, Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander) puts her on equal footing as Deach. She’s pretty centrally framed, with nothing else in the shot in terms of foregrounds or shoulders. When we go back to Brubaker he still hasn’t gained control of the scene, though he’s more prevalent. That’s the senator in the foreground, frame right – still intruding in Brubaker’s space.
But as you can see (this is a few shots later), it doesn’t take long for Brubaker to establish himself…
Though when he does, he’s immediately shot down (the first shot above), and then relegated to a less privileged position again (second shot).