Saturday, October 22, 2005

Picked Flick #98: Brother's Keeper

Counting upwards on the list, my next three entries are all American independent movies, each of them restoring some meaning and marrow to the idea of truly independent film; whatever their evident compromises or flaws, they all encourage my belief that unexpected stories can still be told about improbable people in untested and illuminating ways. The first of these films, Brother's Keeper, was made by documentarians Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, who later found greater fame for their two Paradise Lost movies (1996 and 2000). Those films chronicled how three Arkansan teenagers were accused of diabolical murder and were subsequently run through a scattershot judicial system that has all three imprisoned to this day. I prefer Brother's Keeper, however, for telling the less didactically driven and altogether more peculiar tale of the Ward brothers of Munnsville, NY, ranging in age from 59 to 70, all of them reclusive to the point of ghostliness, barely literate if at all, and subject to a real whopper of a media circus when the second-oldest brother dies in his sleep. When the coroner determines that he seems to have been suffocated, big questions arise. When "youngest" brother Delbert signs a confession of murder, despite outside claims that he couldn't possibly understand what he was signing, the plot thickens. When semen is found in the stomach of the deceased, things really fly off the handle.

Brother's Keeper is not a perfect documentary by any means. Berlinger and Sinofsky, as in Paradise Lost, are perhaps artificial in streamlining their complex scenario into gothic-thriller dimensions, after which they follow the reverse instinct of playing all too obviously into the side of the case they prefer. Nonetheless, Brother's Keeper is a pretty extraordinary document, not least because the surviving Ward brothers are such craggy, enigmatic, and fascinating subjects for the cameramen, who at least have the grace not to leer at them outright. Shuffling about at the pace of Galapagos turtles, and marked by the same habit of palpably retreating into their private shells, the Wards do not quite seem to fit the visions of the prosecution, but nor do they seem well-suited to the "local hero" status they acquire from a roused local populace who smell a legal feeding frenzy and are determined to safeguard this trio of virtual hermits. An extremely strange social dynamic emerges, one that confers poetic justification on the name "Ward," though the film's intimate tracing of their existence cannot disguise the fact that nobody, filmmakers included, seems to know quite what to make of them. Too, the possibility subsists throughout that the Wards know more than they ever tell, and despite sensationalist undertows, the film never succumbs to romanticizing their silence. While watching other documentaries, not to mention while living as their regional neighbors in upstate New York, I have often thought of the Wards and their appalling poverty, their almost total privacy, and afterward their vulnerability to legal and finally artistic forms of surveillance which they must never have envisioned. Formally steadier than Capturing the Friedmans and less grandiose in the scope of what it imagines, Brother's Keeper won a slew of prizes from critics' groups when it was released, but it deserves a bigger following. (Click here for the full list of Nick's Picked Flicks.)

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