Drama, History

Brubaker (1980)

Comments Off on Brubaker (1980) 06 August 2013


Studio: 20th Century Fox

Theatrical Release: June 20, 1980

Blu Ray Release: May 7, 2013

Director: Stuart Rosenberg


Review by James Klein

Director Stuart Rosenberg must have really loved making prison films. His 1967 classic, Cool Hand Luke still remains in my opinion, one of the best prison films ever made. Funny how Cool Hand Luke starred Paul Newman when this prison film, the much grittier and darker Brubaker stars Newman’s close friend, Robert Redford.

Based on the true story of Arkansas prison warden Thomas O. Murton (renamed Henry Brubaker for the film for reasons unknown) who went up against some of his own inmates and the political corruption surrounding the prison during his leadership as the warden of Tucker and Cummins Prison Farms in 1967 and 1968.

Brubaker, posing as an inmate, watches from a distance as he sees the jail being run by corrupt guards while violence and rape take place everyday. Men who are shot by trying to run for it start disappearing with no talk or discussion by anyone as to what happened. Inmates are even being farmed out as slaves to work on farm fields and carpentry shops, all done illegally. As Brubaker takes it all in, he waits for the right moment to step forward, revealing himself as the new warden. When a man is being taken hostage by a crazed inmate (a young Morgan Freeman) Brubaker steps up to the plate to save the man’s life but to also talk down the crazed man by asking what he would wish for while staying at the prison. When Brubaker hears the man talk about wanting to at least look outside since he hasn’t been out in the open for six months, Brubaker makes sure that the man is taken out of his jail cell every day at some point to walk out in the open. This moment, the look on the inmates face, when he goes outside for the first time, having to wear sunglasses because of his eyes being so sensitive to the light, is both shocking and touching. I could almost see someone like Spielberg going over the top with this moment but Rosenberg keeps the scene realistic by not forcing the viewer to hear melodramatic music or showing a close up on the actor’s facing while crying.

As Brubaker starts cracking down on the violence in the jail, he soon starts to shift his focus on the political corruption going on around the jail. Doctors making the inmates pay for better services, guards taking stock piles of food for themselves, even the Governor (played by the always slimy Murray Hamilton in his last film) turns a blind eye when Brubaker brings all of this to his attention. On top of that, the woman who hired Brubaker for the job of warden turns her back on him as he starts to ruffle the wrong feathers on politicians and state officials. What sets Brubaker over the edge is when he finds out that inmates who have disappeared were actually murdered and buried in unmarked graves behind the prison.

I’m not going to go on about how good Redford is in this film. It’s fucking Robert Redford, you know he’s gonna be good. But the supporting cast is what really excels in this film, much like the all-star cast in Cool Hand Luke. Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander, David Keith, Matt Clark, Tim McIntire, Everett McGill, M. Emmett Walsh (there is the M. Emmett Walsh rule: anything with the old M can’t be an entirely awful movie) Val Avery, Noble Willingham, Wilford Brimley, and one of my all-time favorite character actors, Joe Spinell are all in Brubaker. If there are any of you who don’t know at least most of these actors, then I pray for your soul. Each of their performances are fantastic, adding to the already magnificent Redford and the great direction by Stuart Rosenberg.

20th Century Fox’s blu ray also looks great. I remember seeing a part of this film years ago on T.V. and turning it off because the picture looked so dark and murky, especially near the end of the film. Now, the picture is clear as a whistle but still maintaining the natural film grain. The 5.1 surround is fine but I actually preferred the original mono sound as the dialog sounded much clearer. What a shame though that this true story, a film that earned an Academy Award for best screenplay only gets a theatrical trailer and some TV spots. I would have loved a Redford commentary or even a small retrospect but we’ll take what we can get.

Clocking in at 131 minutes, Brubaker is never dull nor does it ever drag. The performances are captivating and the story is unlike most prison films by centering not on just the prison violence but what happens outside the cell. Brubaker is a must-see.

Rating: ★★★★½

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