Don't Confuse 'Brother's Keeper' With 'My Brother's Keeper'

Devote Christians will probably get more from Brother’s Keeper than non-believers, but this film is without a doubt better made and acted than most in its genre.

Brother's Keeper

Director: Josh Mills
Cast: Alex Miller, Graham Mille, Ray Wise, Daniel Samonas, Mackenzie Mauzy
Distributor: Alchemy
US Release Date: 2015-05-29

When I saw that the classic documentary, Brother’s Keeper (1992), which is about three illiterate, inbred, backcountry brothers who were brought to court and tried by civilization for their uncivilized ways, was getting a new 2015 DVD release, I jumped at the opportunity to review it. Because the 2003 IFC DVD edition of the film already includes some deleted scenes of interest, a solid audio commentary, and an additional short film about the brothers, I expected this new edition to have even more special features in addition to a much needed widescreen option. To put it mildly, I was excited to review a new release of one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen.

But after rushing out of the Post Office, jaywalking across a six-lane road, running up the stairs to my rooftop apartment, and tearing the shipping box apart, I realized I let my excitement get the better of me... The DVD I had been assigned to review wasn’t the classic 1992 documentary Brother’s Keeper, but rather a straight-to-video 2013 melodrama about Christian values that went by the same name. I endured a brief moment of deep depression, but I then, like the professional I am, went ahead and watched this Brother’s Keeper (2013), which had some truly terrible trailers leading up to it and not a single special feature, with an open mind and objective eyes.

The phrase, “my brother’s keeper”, which is now such a popular movie title, has its roots in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. After Cain kills his brother, Abel, God asks him where he is, and Cain replies, “I know not; am I my brother’s keeper?” Without analyzing the meaning of this phrase too deeply and instead taking it for what it is, it becomes obvious why these movies are titled so. The 1992 Brother’s Keeper is about a brother who reportedly kills his actual brother, and this 2013 Brother’s Keeper is about a brother who takes the blame for a killing committed by his brother.

It is, however, about so much more than that. While the themes include all the Christian clichés from forgiveness and revenge to redemption and sin, the story itself could be cut up and arranged to produce at least a half-dozen individual stories. At its most basic, Brother’s Keeper is about a small town in the '50s where a powerful and corrupt businessman, Herbert Leemaster (Ray Wise), calls the shots to such an extent that when his son, Gordon Leemaster (Daniel Samonas), kills the local prom queen, Maggie Malloye (Mackenzie Mauzy), he manages to frame the dead girl’s boyfriend, Pete Goodwynn (Alex Miller), and have him put on death row during which time he and his twin brother, Andy Goodwynn (Graham Miller), must confront both their past and future.

First-time writer and director Josh Mills isn’t the best storyteller, but he certainly knows how to frame a shot and get the best out of his actors. His camera, in fact, moves us through what is, when it comes down to it, a ridiculous story with a sureness that makes us, at least in spots, buy into what we’re watching. Meanwhile, in spite of being mostly no-names, all the actors put on decent enough performances. There’s plenty of the overacting that goes along with such faith-based melodramas, but it's the type of overacting that will at least cause a little moisture in your eyes that isn’t from unintended laughter alone.

Maybe, however, this eye moisture is mostly a result of the soundtrack. It would fit nicely into any of the Lifetime channel movies from the ‘90s and is designed specifically to trick our emotions into behaving in ways our brains deem pathetic — considering the farfetched story and its speechified morals. Regardless of how he does it, Mills manages to make us care about his characters and what happens to them. Therefore, the many twists and turns, some of which are predictable and overplayed but others shocking and inventive will keep you on, edge to be sure.

Devote Christians will probably get more from Brother’s Keeper than someone such as myself, but this isn’t the standard faith-based affair. Not only is it slightly better made and acted than most films in its genre, Brother’s Keeper raises questions through the situations its characters find themselves in, and how they choose to respond to said situations, that have more to do with life itself than any specific religion’s teachings. With Brother’s Keeper, Mills basically concludes that in this life bad things can and do happen to good people, but it's how one chooses to react to these bad things that, in the end, makes one good or bad. Healing through forgiveness is the message here.


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