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The new warden of a small prison farm in Arkansas tries to clean it up of corruption after initially posing as an inmate.
For more about Brubaker and the Brubaker Blu-ray release, see Brubaker Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on June 12, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.5 out of 5.
Starring: Robert Redford, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander, Murray Hamilton, David Keith, Morgan Freeman
Director: Stuart Rosenberg
» See full cast & crew
Brubaker Blu-ray Review
A Idealist Subverts the Penal System
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, June 12, 2013
The privatized, for-profit prison system that emerged from the War on Drugs in the 1980s has come under increasing scrutiny lately—for contributing to the sharp spike in incarceration rates—but given the choice between an overcrowded modern correctional facility and the comparatively unregulated, corruption-rife late 1960s state prison "farm" represented in Brubaker, most would prefer a long stay in the former to a short one in the latter. Based on penologist and warden Tom Murton's account of going undercover in an Arkansas prison to expose endemic graft and abuse, the film is a grimy true life story of idealism confronting the worst in human nature head-on. It was directed by Stuart Rosenberg, who had made a previous prison movie, Cool Hand Luke, in 1967—the year in which Brubaker takes place—and the two films inevitably have a lot in common. The observation of the prison pecking order. The beatings and hard labor and escape attempts. The dehumanizing and brutalizing effects of serving time. Where Cool Hand Luke is a great film, though, Brubaker is a merely good one, less iconic and suspenseful, and more prone to a kind of cardboard didacticism when it comes to the inherent commentary on the injustices of the justice system. Still, it's a compelling experience, and—considering the ongoing debate about the role and operation of prisons—it hasn't lost any of its relevancy.
In the same year that he directed the Academy Award-winning Ordinary People, Robert Redford—the man for whom the phrase "ruggedly handsome" was invented—stars here as Henry Brubaker, an observant prisoner en route to the Wakefield State Penitentiary. The dilapidated prison is comprised of a group of barrack buildings huddled in the middle of 16,000 acres of farmland, which the inmates are forced to work, tilling the rocky ground with picks and growing cash crops that are sold under market price. Where the proceeds go is part of the film's ongoing mystery, as the profits clearly aren't being funneled back into the prison, a crowded shithole that's quite literally falling apart.
Brubaker arrives and quickly learns the ins and outs of the institution's power structure and corrupt inner economy. Instead of civilian guards, a select group of privileged "trustee" prisoners—played by Yaphet Kotto (Alien), Tim McIntire (American Hot Wax), and Everett McGill (Twin Peaks)—lord over the common "ranks," carrying shotguns and wielding leather straps as whips. Prisoners sell their blood to the local doctor for cash, which they use to buy overpriced sandwiches at the canteen, which otherwise serves a free maggot-addled slop. Rape is a nightly occurrence and regular beatings keep the troublemakers in line. It's a hard-knock life.
When a crazed death row inmate—Morgan Freeman in a small role—breaks out of his cell and holds another prisoner hostage, Brubaker is forced to play his hand and reveal that he is, in fact, the new reform warden, hired by the state governor's aide, Lillian Gray (Jane Alexander), who seems to have a thing for him. Having surreptitiously infiltrated Wakefield—and seen firsthand the myriad abuses of power—Brubaker thinks he knows how to go about cleaning up the place. He soon learns, however, that the institutional rot runs far deeper than he could've imagined. Insurance scams. Small businessmen using prisoners as slave labor. A discrete sex shack located on the back end of the property. A secret cache of food supplies, the currency in a complicated money-making scheme that defrauds both the federal government and local suppliers. If there's a buck to be made, someone—inside or out—has figured out a way to make it.
Like a dentist doing a root canal, Brubaker systematically cleans out the decay, using a few trusted inmates as his figurative hygienists. (Foremost is An Officer and a Gentleman's David Keith as Larry Lee Bullen, a "habitual offender" who's really a victim of the uncaring system. He has his redemption, but it does come at a price.) Brubaker hits a nerve, though, when he discovers the bodies of several prisoners buried in a field, their skulls bludgeoned and legs severed. Suddenly, his higher-ups, who expected him to enact only minor reforms, are worried that he might bring their whole illegal and exploitive enterprise—that is, the "way we do things around here"—to light. Those who stand to profit from the status quo begin to conspire against him, impeding his progress and trying to find ways to push him out. It's Brubaker against a lumbering, oppressive system that puts "tradition" and greed over efficiency and compassion, and though the film has a moderately "happy" ending, it's rather bleak in its ultimate pronouncement that, while one man can make a difference, our institutions are engineered in such a way as to make this very, very difficult.
Brubaker's point-making is sometimes a bit too on-the-nose, prioritizing the film's message over its storytelling and characters. In particular, Brubaker himself is strangely flat, which is partly do with Redford's laid-back screen presence, but mostly the fault of screenwriter W.D. Richter (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), who tells us so little about the man, his background, and his motivations. Brubaker isn't a person taking an ax to the system, he's just an ax, an autonomous, impersonal tool performing a chore. A robot of reform. Nonetheless, the film is engaging on so many other levels—the interesting ensemble cast, the gritty cinematography, Lalo Schifrin's excellent score, the wince-inducing violence—that this hardly matters. Brubaker will always be the lesser of Stuart Rosenberg's prison movies—it's hard to top Cool Hand Luke—but it holds up well as an indictment of the way correctional facilities can be mismanaged, to the moral detriment of both the inmates and the officials.
Brubaker Blu-ray, Video Quality
20th Century Fox has put out some terrific-looking catalog releases recently, and Brubaker is no exception. Actually, I'd say this is one of the better high definition remasters I've seen lately for a film from the late 1970s and early '80s. To start, the source materials have undergone a careful, non-obtrusive cleanup, leaving the image absolutely pristine. Beyond one or two errant white specks, I didn't notice any print damage, and better yet, the picture is entirely natural and filmic, with no evidence of texture-smearing noise reduction or edge enhancement. (Note, though, that the film grain is quite heavy at times.) It's doubtful any theatrical prints of the movie ever looked this good. Besides a few soft shots here and there, clarity is excellent, pulling out the fine detail in Redford's craggy face, the worn-out prison uniforms, and other near-tangible textures. Color is perfectly balanced and stable too, dense without being oversaturated, with strong contrast, consistent black levels, and highlights that roll off smoothly. (I especially like how the color grading changes subtly from the early scenes—where the prison looks particularly dank and dingy—to the lighter atmosphere once Brubaker enacts some morale-improving reforms.) I didn't spot any compression issues or anything else that might detract from the viewing experience. A strong transfer, all around.
Brubaker Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Fox has given us two audio options here, the default 5.1 surround mix and a true-to-source mono track, both in the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio codec. The two are functionally identical. The multi-channel expansions adds only the quietist ambience to the surround speakers—barracks clamor, cafeteria chatter, etc.—and most of the time, you really have to crane your ears to hear if they're being used at all. And that's fine. What's important is the quality of the audio coming from the front. Like the picture, the sound is free from age-related damage—no overt hisses, pops, crackles, or dropouts— and stable throughout, consistent in clarity and presence and depth. Dialogue is always clear and easy to understand, and Lalo Schifrin's score—with strummed acoustic guitars backed by orchestral strings—sounds wonderful. No issues here. The disc also includes Spanish, French, and German dubs, along with English SDH, Spanish, and German subtitles, which appear in white lettering.
Brubaker Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Brubaker Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Director Stuart Rosenberg's Brubaker can't touch his iconic Cool Hand Luke, but it remains a gripping prison drama, a finger-wagging indictment of institutional corruption and injustice. If you haven't seen the movie—or haven't seen it in a while—it's certainly worth checking out, and 20th Century Fox's new Blu-ray release is definitely the way to go about it. Fox's recent catalog transfers have been excellent, and Brubaker's new high definition remaster is one of the most impressive, with a sharp, filmic image that's absolutely free of print damage or compression artifacts. There are no substantive extras on the disc—just a trailer and some TV spots—but this one still earns a solid recommendation.
Brubaker Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Redford and Newman Films Coming Up (Updated) - March 13, 2013
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has revealed that it is planning to bring to Blu-ray two classic films: Stuart Rosenberg's Brubaker (1980), starring Robert Redford, Yaphet Kotto, and Morgan Freeman, and Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (1982), starring Paul ...
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