Scripted by Bruce A. Evans and Raynold Gideon, a veteran writing team (Stand by Me, Star Man) and directed by Evans, Mr. Brooks begins with its title character standing before the Portland (Ore.) Chamber of Commerce, honored with the Businessman of the Year award. By his side, Emma (Marg Helgenberger), the beaming, blond wife. On the drive back to their sleek and lovely glass house, someone else is at Earl's side, or over his shoulder, anyway: Marshall (Hurt), a quietly cackling fellow who seems to know Earl's every thought.
Like Harvey to Jimmy Stewart, Marshall is Earl's imaginary friend, his alter ego, a guy in a suit who walks around with Earl, who eggs him on, a killer confidant that only Earl knows is there - Earl, and the audience.
Earl's been on a long hiatus from his homicides - his methodical ways had left him dubbed the Thumbprint Killer - but now Marshall and Earl decide it's time to kill again. The victims have been stalked, staked out, profiled. Earl excuses himself from Emma, heads off into the night and does the deed.
But there's a glitch: A gawker in an apartment building across the street has witnessed the killing, and now he's approached Earl with photographic evidence and a twisted kind of blackmail scheme. Comedian Cook is the slimeball known as Mr. Smith, and as Earl wrestles with what to do with this unexpected nuisance, blotting a perfect streak of murders, a police detective - Moore, playing a tough cookie with her own set of problems - gets involved in the case.
Slickly shot, coolly edited, oozing dark, deadpan humor, Mr. Brooks finds Costner at the top of his game. His moves are subtle, his expressions flat, his emotions clamped down, contained. Hurt's perfect as the sinister sidekick, and Moore, though she never appears face to face with Costner, makes her presence known: sharp, assertive, sexy in that no-nonsense Demi-esque way.
If Mr. Brooks hits any wrong notes, it's in the relationship between Earl and his college-age daughter, Jane (Danielle Panabaker). The filmmakers suggest that killing isn't the only thing Earl does in his spare time: There are intimations, intended or not, that the father-daughter relationship may have gone in exceedingly icky directions. And when Jane returns home from campus with troubles of her own, the way Earl decides to handle them - Earl, and the screenwriters - doesn't quite make sense.
But Mr. Brooks - the movie and the character - remains mostly under control. A successful businessman with killer instincts? Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it?
Mr. Brooks *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Bruce A. Evans, written by Raynold Gideon and Evans, photography by John Lindley, distributed by MGM Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours
Earl Brooks............... Kevin Costner
Marshall. . . William Hurt
Det. Atwood. . . Demi Moore
Mr. Smith...................... Dane Cook
Emma Brooks. . . Marg Helgenberger
Parent's guide: R (violence, gore, sex, profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/stevenrea.