- Movie Rating -

Brubaker (1980)

| June 20, 1980

The biggest problem with Brubaker is that it is a movie minds its Ps and Qs.  It’s a movie from top to bottom, rarely strays from its conventions and stays pretty much in its lane as a drama.  That’s a problem because this is a movie as social commentary and social commentary needs to move with the flow of real life.  If the character stay in their cubby-holes (The Politician, The Administrator, The Idealist, The Man of Nobility) then the spontaneity of real life keeps them from behaving like real people and we get a series of movie conventions.

This is a movie about prison reform and to pack it down to a formula means that the movie loses sight of what it is trying to do.  In a movie like this, you never want it to be so written that you lose the characters.  Trapped in this unfortunate box is Robert Redford who plays Henry Brubaker, a prison warden assigned with cleaning up the violence and inhuman conditions present at the Wakefield Prison Farm.  The place is a cesspool of corruption, a place rampage with beatings, bribery rape and murder – sentences are reduced when an armed inmate shoots someone trying to escape.

The movie cleverly doesn’t tell us that Brubaker is a warden working undercover so we can get a first-hand look at the conditions of the prison farm.  Our first sign of trouble is that fact that when Redford’s character enters the prison, he is basically invisible, no one bothers him at all.  Wouldn’t a man as strikingly handsome as Redford draw some attention?

What is striking is how harsh the movie is allowed to be in its opening scenes.  Yes, the prison is a hellhole and the director, Stuart Rosenberg, never holds back in showing us first-hand what a terrible place this is.  The problem is that once Brubaker becomes an activist for reform, the movie degenerates into a long series of scenes in which the noble activist stands up against immobile politicians who either see prisoners as animals in a cage or are benefitting from them.  That’s a repetition that the movie never lets up on.

The bulk of Redford’s performance from this point on is basically a lot of speechifying that goes on repeat, but they never come from his soul.  We know little to nothing about him, who he is or why he took this position.  This is a well-intentioned movie that needs to loosen things up to let us in on the human dimension of the problem, not just the requirements as a movie.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1980) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized