Kevin Costner Goes Psycho
Hollywood’s golden boy gets dark in Mr. Brooks
by Joe Leydon
Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) is a fabulously successful businessman, a devoted father and husband, a much-respected pillar of his community and, on those occasions when he simply cannot suppress his baser instincts, a coolly meticulous serial killer.
Kevin Costner stars in Mr. Brooks.
Heaven knows, Mr. Brooks he has tried to suppress the murderous urges that have fueled his sporadic activities as the notorious "Thumbprint Killer." Indeed, he even attends 12-step meetings-where, presumably, he’s scrupulously vague about the precise nature of his addiction-in a vain attempt to withstand repeated prodding by a snarky alter ego known as Marshall (William Hurt). Trouble is, there are limits to how long Mr. Brooks can turn a deaf ear to his inner monster.
No one but Mr. Brooks can see or hear Marshall. Unfortunately, someone does see Mr. Brooks-specifically, a blackmailing photographer (Dane Cook) who wants to share the thrill of the kill-during his latest double homicide. Worse, someone else-a world-class, psycho-profiling supercop (Demi Moore)-is sussing out clues to uncover the identity of the Thumbprint Killer. And if all that weren’t bad enough, Mr. Brooks also must cope with a looming domestic crisis: Maybe, just maybe, his beloved college-age daughter (Danielle Panabaker) is following in daddy’s bloody footprints?
Mr. Brooks is an ingeniously twisty and subversively witty mindfreak, simultaneously dead serious and borderline absurd as it breathes fresh life into the serial killer subgenre. While ticket buyers proved immune to its perverse pleasures when it hit theaters on June 1, word-of-mouth buzz should be enough to ensure a cult following among cineastes and a long shelf-life on DVD. Credit director Bruce A. Evans and co-writer Raymond Gideon (who also teamed on the screenplay adaptation of Stand By Me) with striking a near-perfect balance of wink-wink comedy, bang-bang kinesis-a shootout in the hallway of a dingy hotel is a minor masterwork of inspired montage-and (sorry, there’s no better way to describe it) Hitchcockian suspense.
While you’re handing out kudos, save a fistful for producer and star Kevin Costner, a chronically underrated actor who delights in exploiting his own star power to illuminate every facet of a movie that is equal parts ice-cold thriller and pitch-black comedy. He knows what you expect of him-and he knows how to subvert those expectations.
Joe Leydon (MM): Kevin, I hope you realize that I mean it as a compliment when I say you were extremely convincing as a serial killer.
Kevin Costner (KC): (Laughs) Well, thank you.
MM: Do you think the baggage you bring with you as an actor-the heroic image you’ve managed to develop in most of your earlier films -actually enhances the impact of your portrayal of Earl Brooks?
KC: I don’t know. I’ve always moved toward what I thought was good writing-whether it was a Western, or a sports movie, or a political thriller-and I really try to hide inside good writing. Because I think that’s the salvation of all actors-good writing. We can’t get by simply on our charm for two hours; it doesn’t make any sense, and everybody catches up. But I thought that for a serial killer movie-which really kind of almost represents a niche, a niche that I don’t normally like to even go see-it found its mark in so many universal ways, because you’ve got a character who’s also a father, a husband and, yeah, somebody who would go kill for his daughter.
There’s a lot of ways that I thought I could bring a universal quality to him and create an empathy. Not a forgiveness or a ‘Wink-wink, I’m not such a bad guy,’ but a feeling of, ‘Wow. This is an individual. He’s struggling. And he’s being pushed to the limit by things he can’t control-a disease. And he has this sort of wannabe who’s blackmailing him." All of that gets over-layered by the fact that his daughter is having unusual problems, so I thought it was just a really nice American film. And I thought that it would have to be protected quite a bit because I thought all of the things that were interesting about it, to my way of thinking, were probably the things that might be eliminated because of the conventions of modern-day moviemaking.
MM: True enough. You and Bruce Evans are not afraid to take your time during some key scenes. I can imagine other people continually cutting to the chase-or being told to cut to the chase.
KC: I agree with you. I’m really comfortable with letting scenes play for three or four minutes. Like the scenes in the kitchen with the wife and the daughter and things like that. I just think the words are the star, not necessarily the action. Eventually, sure, we’re going to get to the action, and present our own style to it. But it was very important to feel like the words were the star of the movie.
MM: You and William Hurt more or less play the same character, in tandem. How do you rehearse to get in sync like that?
KC: Well, first off, we do exactly what you said-rehearse-because we had to find our own way with this. Both Bill and I believe in the rehearsal process for any movie, but this one really demanded it because we were trying to find a sense of movement, a sense of space and how to communicate the situation to the audience. We had to create our own vocabulary of physical movement, because that was the storytelling device-my alter ego is right there on screen with me. It was really a puzzle for us, and we looked forward to solving it the best way we could.
MM: Of course, you’ve gone to the dark side a few times before, in everything from Wyatt Earp to that guilty pleasure known as 3,000 Miles to Graceland.
KC: Exactly. A Perfect World was another movie where, well, I went to dark places.
MM: But when you first read the Mr. Brooks script, was there anything that made you feel, "Oh, jeez, I don’t know if I can do that?"? I mean, what was the toughest nut for you to crack?
KC: For me, the toughest nut to crack was not one that was obvious, but it was one that I thought was necessary. When I killed, I wanted to make sure I conveyed a sense of power-a sense of exalting-as opposed to immediately feeling bad and sorry for myself. I wanted you to understand that people like Earl Brooks are being fed in some way. I didn’t want to back away from that or kind of look at the audience and say, ‘See? I’m really a good guy! I feel really bad about this!’ I wasn’t sure how I was going to manifest that to an audience, but you saw how I did it: I created almost a kind of ecstasy in the moment. Now, of course, it quickly fades from me, because you can see that he’s a man who’s struggling, who does not want to kill and who has not killed for two years. But I didn’t want to back away from the idea that there’s something he gets out of it at some moment. I wanted to get inside the insidiousness of it.
MM: But when you do convey that exaltation-when you more or less swoon on camera-do you ever think, "You know, if I screw this up, I can look awfully freakin’ silly"?
KC: Well, the moment I start thinking about that? Look, what you’re outlining there is possible. But I also knew that, like anything else, if I didn’t swing for the fences who could I brag to about it? (laughs) I mean, seriously, I knew I had to be unafraid right there-that this was not the time to shrink from the role. It was the time to go as far as I could and be inside the moment.
MM: It strikes me that an actor who tries something this risky must really, really trust his director. How did Evans earn your trust?
KC: Well, I knew I had final cut. (laughs)
MM: Hey, whatever works.
KC: But that was important for a myriad of reasons. I knew I could protect the film-and I knew I could not shrink away from that moment. Because the same thing that caught your eye, that’s what might, in conventional moviemaking, make The Powers That Be say, "Oooh! Do we need to we need to show you gloating so much? I don’t think the audiences are going to like that moment. Why don’t you just kill, we’ll just cut away and Bill will keep you from going into the light." In my own mind, I already anticipated all that. All the things I liked about the script, all the bells were going off in my head about them, because I knew they were the things that would upset people the most. And so, I thought, okay, there are a lot of things here that are going to make people wince. The violence, the quickness with which I kill [a supporting character] and the bloodiness of it all. But I knew that’s how bloody it needed to be. I knew the audience had to think, "Oh my God! He can just kill, just like that!" I knew those things were going to need to be protected. So it’s not so much that the director made me feel comfortable, it’s just that I know what the job is.
MM: You sound like someone who isn’t terribly concerned with pleasing a fan base.
KC: I knew that certain parts of the audience who were used to seeing me in other roles-in other movies-might recoil. But I could not try to appease them and abandon the movie. Look, I always try to make something classic. And when you do that, I think you have to forget about the friends you’re trying to preserve. I think you have to go into those new areas and see if they’ll go with you-and also see how people who never knew you before will respond to the movie.
MM: Is it safe to say that, these days, you think of yourself as a character actor more than a movie star?
KC: I’ve always seen that in a sense, because I love acting so much. It’s always been painfully obvious the role that I should probably act in as far as the movie itself is concerned, but there have always been a lot of other roles around me that I would have loved to act in. From a character standpoint, I think I could have really nailed them. I watch the other actors really closely, and I’m happy when they do it well and disappointed when they don’t, because I feel like I would know how to do it. But usually, yeah, I should play Wyatt Earp. I should play Billy Chapel [in For the Love of the Game]. I have this place in American cinema and I need to not abandon it or go away from that just to prove that I can act. But when I see a role where I can fit, I’m not afraid to go there.