Thursday, December 29, 2011

Day 29: Brother's Keeper

"We've never had a murder here, as I ever remember."

D.A. Pennebaker, Albert & David Maysles, Errol Morris, Michael Moore, Barbara Kopple. All pioneers of the documentary form, all heavy influences on the work of Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. Best known as the team that has spent much of the last two decades exploring the story of the West Memphis Three in their Paradise Lost series, they have taken a number of diversions over that time. Most famously Berlinger went off to helm the sequel to The Blair Witch Project and alienated Sinofsky in doing so. The two reunited for 2004's Metallica doc Some Kind of Monster, but have mostly worked apart in the ensuing years.

Their first collaboration was 1992's Brother's Keeper, a warts-and-all look at a small town in central New York state, and what the citizens of the town of Munnsville saw as a gross miscarriage of justice. The focus of the film is the Ward brothers, Delbert, Roscoe, Lyman and William, four men who have lived in Munnsville their entire lives as farmers. The eldest, William, is dead and an examination of his body leads police to believe that he may have been murdered. The surviving brothers are rounded up for some questioning and at the end of a marathon interrogation, they receive a confession from Delbert to having suffocated William in a mercy killing. However, there is more to this story than meets the eye (there has to be I guess, otherwise, why document it?) You see, the brothers are all varying degrees of illiterate and are all pretty simple (there has to be a nicer way of saying that), so many people in town feel that Delbert was tricked or coerced into signing a confession. They bail him out of jail and proceed to help raise money to mount his defense.

Taking a page out of the Errol Morris playbook, the film is very deliberately edited, revealing bits of information at varying times to create suspense. It starts with a lot of interviews with the Ward boys, various townsfolk, and a lot of blustery, self-important law enforcement-types, and culminates in Delbert's trial. The filmmakers build suspense very well, and if you don't know the verdict, the moments before it's read are some of the most intense they captured on film. They're savvy filmmakers, but not so consumed with technique that they fail to capture the human element happening around them. They clearly have a lot of love for the Ward family and do everything in their power to show where their allegiances lie. They devote next to no time to the opposing view, mainly because they feel, rightly, that it's a crock of shit. Be warned, I'm going to be spoiling the verdict, so if you haven't seen the film or don't know the outcome, read the review after doing so.

We're presented with the "evidence" against Delbert which amounts to his confession and the testimony of the first medical examiner (holy hell he's an insufferable douchebag). I suppose it's hard to spend the amount of time the filmmakers spent with these brothers and not feel for them and not demonize the other side, but their case against Delbert is tenuous at best. They only include one particularly astute insight by the prosecution, when one of the officers says something to the effect of "the Ward brothers are outcasts in their own town, but when the people saw how they were being treated, they rallied around them and stood up to protect one of their own." It's clear that even the most die-hard Ward supporter in town still handles them with kid gloves, but that doesn't mean that they won't protect them when they see a blatant disregard for justice.

The scene where the prosecutor puts Lyman on the stand is very difficult to watch. This is a man who hasn't travelled more than five miles from his home in his life being asked to take the stand and answer questions. He falls apart on the stand and can't stop shaking. It probably single-handedly doomed the prosecution's case and rightly so. It was a bush-league move by a district attorney looking to build a case on nothing. The boys obviously had no legal counsel when they were interrogated initially and these prosecutors had nothing to go on beyond some circumstantial evidence that doesn't hold any water.

Late in the film there is a scene where the brothers hire a man to come and slaughter one of their pigs, and it's shown in brutal detail. It's played late in the film like the directors' trump card, almost like a victory lap for their argument: How could Delbert possibly have killed his brother when he has to hire someone to kill an animal? It does give one pause, and I personally began to feel it was almost too stagey. When Delbert is being cross-examined by the prosecutor late in the film, he asks him about what shows he watches. Among them he lists Matlock, and when asked to describe it in more detail, he says that it's a show where Andy Griffith plays a defense lawyer. Now, the non-cynical part of me wants to think that he's now wiser about the world and knows what a defense lawyer is, but there's this creeping suspicion in me that says maybe he's not as dumb as we've been led to believe.

Who knows? His acquittal and ability to go back to his normal life is all that matters. Even if it was a mercy killing, it was between family members and the police and state had no right to interfere. It's not like this man posed a significant threat to anyone, and it seemed more like a land grab than anything else to me on the state's part anyway, so so much the better the case never panned out.

It's a fascinating film and highly recommended for lovers of documentaries. Even though they are borrowing liberally from their heroes like the Maysles and Errol Morris in particular, Berlinger and Sinofsky create their own style, one that blends the best worlds of both of those filmmakers (the intimacy of the Maysles with the clincical precision of Morris). Andrew Jarecki perfected this blend some 11 years later with Capturing the Friedmans, but even that masterpiece's roots can be seen here.

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