Don't feel bad if, during the opening salvos of Mr. Brooks, you question whether you've sat down at the midpoint of the film.
Director Bruce Evans structures his serial-killer thriller like a John Sandford or James Patterson page-turner, the kind that made household names of fictitious crime-solvers Alex Cross and Lucas Davenport. Evans intentionally paces his movie like the middle act of a longer story, which is a bold move until we realize Brooks raises more questions than the director and his co-writer, Raynold Gideon, can answer.
Title character Brooks, portrayed with icy detachment by Kevin Costner, is introduced as a veteran criminal coming out of a two-year period of inactivity. A mild schizophrenic, Brooks discusses his lethal decisions with alter-ego Marshall (William Hurt), an instigating personality who routinely encourages the conservative family man to act on his malicious impulses. Brooks even has an arch-enemy on the police force in Detective Tracy Atwood (Demi Moore), who also carries her own healthy backstory involving an ex-husband trying to siphon off a portion of the officer's financial inheritance.
And we've barely scratched the surface of the plot. Brooks -- and, by default, Marshall -- unwittingly picks up a protégé in Smith (Dane Cook), an amateur photographer who catches Brooks in the act of murder. Instead of going to the police, Smith uses his photographic evidence to blackmail Brooks into teaching him how to kill. At home, Brooks' daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker) tells daddy she's dropping out of college. He correctly assumes she has bigger fish to fry, though I'll leave her issues for you to discover.
Brooks splits its narrative into thirds, then struggles to connect the plot pieces until a forced resolution that conveniently attaches Smith's unexplained desire to murder someone with Atwood's messy divorce. Evans wrings more suspense out of the contradicting relationship between Brooks and Marshall, leaving Costner and Hurt plenty of room to explore the milquetoast weapon and his flawed voice of reason. The director employs creative parlor tricks to show us the Marshall character. Hurt, having more fun than Costner in a supporting role, recites dialogue in rear-view mirrors and different reflections near Brooks. Costner also is able to converse freely with Hurt in their scenes without the other characters hearing their dialogue. This takes some getting used to, but it circumvents the movie's inherent communication problem of having a supposedly normal guy talking to an imaginary motivator who no one else can see.
Investigators searching for murder suspects frequently question motivation, though, and Brooks -- both the movie and the character -- has none. The thriller is a meticulous study on the "how" of serial killing. It just skims over the all-important "why."
Brooks does admit to an addiction, and Evans shows Costner attending help groups and whispering quick prayers in an effort to contain his lust for murder. But the movie can't muster adequate reasons why this white-collar family man began a killing spree, how he has been able to keep it hidden from his wife (Marg Helgenberger) and child, why he takes himself out of semi-retirement, or when he plans to strike again. Even more important, the film does not explain what prompted Brooks to create a parallel identity in Marshall. Costner admitted in recent interviews that Marshall's backstory is explained in a scene that Evans eventually cut. This fills us in if we're lucky enough to catch up on supplemental articles tied to Brooks, and I happily pass the information on to you now. It just doesn't help the finished film.
Talk about a backseat driver.