BRUBAKER – Blu-ray review

In “Brubaker,” a 1980 prison movie, Robert Redford plays Henry Brubaker, the newly appointed warden to Wakefield State Prison, where, for the first half hour we see him admitted as an inmate and observing undercover the extent of the abuse and corruption that he’s up against.

“Brubaker” is based on the real-life story of Tom Murton, a penologist who had success in Alaska and who was reluctantly hired by the Governor of Arkansas to “turn things around” at Cummins State Prison . . . but fired less than a year later after the reformer turned out to be more serious and more effective than the political machine could tolerate.

Curiously, it sounds more exciting than the film turns out to be, with Brubaker basically a fly on the wall who simply looks at all the corruption around him—the bribery, the rapes, the beatings, the torture, the forced “slave labor” for nearby lumber mills and factories, the poor living conditions, the missing or maggot-riddled food, the prisoners-with-guns who shoot escapees—and just says or does nothing. I kept thinking that as long as writer W.D. Richter was fabricating an undercover sequence that never happened, he could have done a better job at developing tension. There are really no close calls for Brubaker, no suspicions he may be a “plant,” and no real attention paid to him. As a result, the entire first act felt like an opportunity lost.

And for a prison where being “pretty” can get you the kind of date you sure as heck don’t want, golden-haired all-American boy Redford is able to just keep to himself, while other young, “fresh meat” are pulled off for the pleasure of the inmates or guards (it’s hard to tell which). Equally unlikely is his big reveal, where a very young and wild-eyed (and haired) Morgan Freeman has his “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” hostage moment and Brubaker saunters in, announces he’s the new warden, resolves the situation, and is taken to see the old warden at his request, pronto. And I’m thinking, really? They wouldn’t just have beat his ass and left him for half-dead in a cell, the way they did everyone else?  It all seems too easy, and, taking a cue from Redford’s personality, too easy-going.

That’s the rub. The narrative arc produces not nearly enough tension until the action picks up the end of the second act and beginning of the third. Still, “Brubaker” offers some realistic drama with some all-around solid acting. Matt Clark turns in a particularly fine performance as secretary to the warden and first-class weasel, and nobody does a smarmy authority figure better than Murray Hamilton (“B.J. and the Bear”). Jane Alexander seems like a loose connection as the Governor’s assistant/PR person/liaison (we’re never sure exactly what she does) who seems to have gotten Brubaker the job, and Yaphet Kotto’s performance gets lost among the others. All of which is to say that “Brubaker” is entertaining enough, but not as dramatic, complex, or tense as you’d expect it to be. And I’m not even going to talk about the clichéd quasi-feel-good ending.

The ‘80s weren’t very kind to movies, with color film stock often fading. That’s happily not the case with “Brubaker.” There’s some undersaturation, but for the most part the colors look as they were intended—just a little on the drab side.”Brubaker” is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and I saw no problems with the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc, and not excess DNR. There’s a noticeable layer of film grain on backgrounds especially, but it only complements the gritty subject matter.

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 (@32MPBS) that doesn’t really scatter the sound because this is a soundtrack that’s center-heavy. But there’s a nice modulation of dialogue, music, and effects—a very believable mix. There’s an English DTS-HD MA 1.0 Mono for those who prefer it, and additional audio options in Spanish and French Dolby Digital 1.0.  Subtitles are in English SDH and Spanish.

The only bonus features are a theatrical trailer and a couple of TV spots.

Bottom line:
I never felt that I was wasting my time watching “Brubaker,” only that it could have been a more dramatic and taut prison movie—which is odd, because it’s directed by Stuart Rosenberg (“Cool Hand Luke”).