Earl Brooks (Kevin Costner) knows he has a problem. He’s a serial killer, and he’s very good at it, apparently, because he hasn’t been caught even though he’s rather high profile about it, being known around Portland as the “Thumbprint Killer” because he leaves the crime scene marked with a victim’s big old bloody thumbprint. After years of success, though, Earl is now attending AA-style meetings, identifying himself as an “addict,” reciting the “Lord grant me the serenity” prayer, and believing that if only he takes it a day at a time, he’ll stay on his own, decidedly perverse wagon.
Lucky for you, he’s actually not on that wagon alone. If not for Earl’s very chatty alter ego, Marshall (played by the excellent William Hurt), Mr. Brooks would be a grim business indeed. The conversations shared by Earl and Marshall, however, drag this terminally unthrilling thriller into another realm entirely. The effect, equal parts sinister and silly, kicks in slowly. Even as you’re wondering just how tedious the movie might get — what with Earl’s being tremendously wealthy and voted the Chamber of Commerce Man of the Year (his company makes boxes, about as dull a vocation as a mastermind murderer might conjure, in order to focus his intellectual energies on his exponentially more exciting avocation) — Marshall pops up to offer his snarky, sniffy version of “advice,” and Mr. Brooks turns into something else.
That thing doesn’t quite fit a category, it’s not really chilling and only inconsistently satirical or funny. Still, it is often entertaining, strange and bumpy enough that you can forgive the stiff parts, especially Earl as family man, mostly avoiding his enigmatic wife Emma (Marg Helgenberger) and flummoxed by his dazzling daughter Jane (Danielle Panabaker), as well as his equally discomfited pursuer, a detective named Tracy (Demi Moore). It’s an obvious move to make the girls seem foreign to Earl. But if his designer-suited good citizenship is lackluster rather than Hannibal Lecterish, his awkwardness, with Jane especially, is at least a little intriguing. His preferred targets are couples in mid-sex act, which hardly suggests he’s happy to have his princess away at college.
The gimmick of Earl’s wealth allows all kinds of plot goofiness. Not only can he jet around, when he gets up the energy, in order to take out specific targets, but he also has at his disposal all manner of high tech serial-killing equipment (weapons, surveillance gizmos, identity documents and disguises), stored under the floor of his “studio,” where he tells Emma he’s working late at night on delicately colored “glazes.” Yes, he understands his violence as art, and yes, he turns the whole process into ritual: he takes photos of crime scenes, then burns them while he crouches before his oven, naked but not quite vulnerable or remorseful.
Earl’s homicidal procedures are exceptionally detailed: in addition to the thumbprint business, he stalks victims for weeks, then enters their homes with a mix of stealth and giddiness. The crisis at the center of Mr. Brooks has to do with what seems an unlikely slip-up, when he doesn’t draw the bedroom curtains of a couple who habitually have sex in full view of their neighbors. Explained as rustiness owing to Earl’s not-quite-sincere efforts to fight his “hunger” (the other addicts at his meetings smoke cigarettes and worry about relapses; his confessions tend to be less detailed), the mistake introduces the utterly slimy “Mr. Smith” (Dane Cook, who will never be better cast in a movie).
As his alias suggests, Smith isn’t clever as he thinks, but he is wowed by the “rush” he felt on seeing the murders (he was watching the couple have sex, as was his wont). Claiming to have photos of the event, Smith proceeds to blackmail Earl into bringing him along on his next kill. Earl initially takes a paternal approach, warning Smith, “If it turns out you enjoy killing it can be very addictive. It can ruin your life.” But Smith is not a thinker in any conventional sense; he’s a stone-cold moron. While Earl ponders how to handle the photos issue (if he has no regret concerning his victims, he does worry about his family, should the truth get out), Marshall is thoroughly put off by the young man: “Even if he was funny and charming,” he harrumphs, “I still wouldn’t like him.”
Marshall thinks Earl ought just kill this interloper outright. (The movie’s most delightful moment comes when Earl and Marshall wait in their car for Smith: “Maybe he’ll get killed crossing the street and save us the mess of doing it,” mutters Marshall, at which point the murderers burst into hearty laughter, in love with themselves, their self-proclaimed brilliance, and their mutually admired sense of humor.) Earl, however, contemplates options, even as his problems multiply. First, he finds out about Tracy, who’s very good at what she does but also battling her own demons. First, she’s in the midst of a brutal divorce from her much younger, crass second husband (Jason Lewis) (during a meeting with their lawyers, she snipes, “You know what would make me feel really safe right now? If you got hit by a bus and died”).
Second, Tracy’s being pursued by another killer she once put away, a tattooed brute named Meeks (Matt Schulze). And third, Tracy’s troubles supposedly stem from ongoing difficulties with a wealthy father creates an alternately clunky and nuanced parallel to Earl’s increasingly fraught relationship with Jane: it turns out that Jane’s sudden return home from college is not just because she’s pregnant, but also, a young man she knows has been murdered. As Earl frets over the possibility that “She has what I have,” he also struggles to rid himself of both Smith and Tracy. In the super-stylish and efficient universe ordained by Earl and Marshall, such loose ends are not merely untidy, they’re also offensive — especially Smith.
Earl takes Smith on a couple of preliminary outings (“We drive around until we see someone we think we might enjoy killing,” he instructs), each underscoring Smith’s stupidity (“You never kill someone you know,” Earl sighs, “It’s the easiest way to get caught”). When Smith decides at last on a pickup truck driver who cuts him off in traffic, Earl goes along… until he doesn’t. Smith sputters at the change in plans, but he’s incidental to Earl’s designs (“The man in the pickup,” Earl doesn’t quite explain, “did not make my heart beat faster,” a line Costner delivers with something like lilt).
In fact, the definitively ugly Smith serves a couple of familiar functions. One, he secures your alignment with the more refined serial killer, and two, he indicts your own pleasure in the very violent imagery you’re now consuming. Banal and contrived as these points may be, the movie is mostly saved by the mutual admiration club performed by Costner and Hurt. Their rhythms are delicate, their jokes dry. Earl and Marshall invite your identification with abject villainy, but never let you forget the creepiness of that process.