It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
"Brubaker" is a grim and depressing drama about prison outrages - a movie that should, given its absolutely realistic vision, have kept us involved from beginning to end. That it doesn't is the result, I think, of a deliberate but unwise decision to focus on the issues involved in the story, instead of on the characters.
All the people in this movie have roles that represent something; there's the Idealistic Reformer, the Pragmatic Politician, the Corrupt Administrator, the Noble Prisoner, the Tough Guard. The problem is that once they're assigned an ideological niche at the beginning of the movie, they behave with absolute consistency. There's no room for the spontaneity of real human personalities caught in real situations.
That's especially annoying with the character of Brubaker himself, played well but within a frustratingly narrow range by Robert Redford. Brubaker is the reform warden assigned to clean up the violence and corruption of Wakefield Prison Farm, a hellhole of sadism where no guards are needed because the prisoner trusties are armed and get time off their sentences for shooting escapees. The movie's first 20 or 30 minutes, which are sickeningly effective, document conditions in the prison, where the commonplaces include beatings, bribery, rape and slum living conditions.
Brubaker finds out about these outrages firsthand. He has himself been brought into the prison anonymously, as a prisoner. This is supposed to provide the movie's biggest surprise, when he finally steps forward and identifies himself, but all the ads for the movie spoil the surprise by identifying Redford as the warden.