Documentary chronicles a strange, squalid story of brotherly love

March 19, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Some years back, Truman Capote, that master of self-dramatization, got himself a Time magazine cover by coming up with the term "non-fiction novel," which just happened to describe the book he was flogging. The phrase has lingered, even if poor Capote and his book have not, and it's a perfect description of "Brother's Keeper," which opens today at the Charles.

This is an examination of a criminal case, real, hopelessly banal and yet unique, that throws a culture into relief, exposing its tics and flaws and surprising (or maybe not) strengths. At the same time, it's an examination of mind-sets in conflict: rural vs. urban, them vs. us, prosecution vs. defense and family vs. others. And it's a hell of a story.

It couldn't have come to revolve around a stranger group of boys.

These are the Ward boys, Delbert, Bill, Lyman and Roscoe, who range in age from 59 to 71. If you ever saw them, you'd probably wish you hadn't. They're dairy farmers, four bachelor brothers in upstate New York who live in utter squalor and self-willed poverty.

You've seen such places from the highway and wondered: Who could live there? The house is ramshackle, the yard littered with junk, and an old school bus has been sunk into the earth to pass for a chicken coop.

At the Wards' farm, the line between animal and human kingdoms has become provisional. They don't bathe, they don't change their clothes, they don't talk, they don't even brush their teeth. How do I know? Easy. They have no teeth.

But -- do they kill? The state thought so.

One morning in 1990, Delbert, 59, called the police to report that his brother Bill, 64, had died in bed -- a bed the four boys shared. The next day, Delbert was arrested for murder.

The state police, after interviewing the somewhat confused Delbert for 12 hours, decided that he had murdered the sickly Bill by suffocating him with his hand, probably motivated by mercy.

In fact, one of the curious strains running through the case is the suspicion that Delbert did for Bill exactly what he would do for an animal in pain: He put him down.

On the day before Delbert was indicted, who should arrive fresh from New York but just-barely-experienced filmmakers Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky and cinematographer Doug Cooper, with a trunk full of 16-millimeter gear rented on credit cards and a hunger to make the great American movie. And they did.

It was one of those strange cases that caught the public imagination and drove the media bonkers.

Delbert ended up giving interviews with Connie Chung: "Thank you, Delbert." "Thank you, Connie."

The story quickly lighted up the small town of Munnsville, N.Y. (pop. 499), as the farm community, which had ignored the smelly, semi-literate and near-reclusive brothers soon came to resent the imposition of "outside" justice.

The filmmakers earned the trust of these people and got them to talk candidly. It's astounding to note how insightful are their observations. And the film shows how the defense lawyer shrewdly manipulates small-town indignation into a powerful force. At the same time, the presence of so many TV news teams, with their stand-ups, their little blazers and their pouffy hair, comes to feel almost like comic relief. The TV boys and girls reduce everything complex and mystifying to hopeless sound bites that make the media seem trivializing.

As the case became more famous, it grew darker. Semen was found on Bill's trousers, opening the possibility of homosexual incest and a lover's quarrel, which seems unfathomable looking at the squalor of the boys. But still the town stuck by Delbert, even throwing him a dance. There he is with his deer-in-the-headlight gaze, doing a do-si-do with a farmer's wife amid piles of home-baked cookies and pies. Where is Grant Wood when you need him?

"Brother's Keeper" builds momentum like a freight train as it pulls us onto and through the trial, watching the prosecutor and the district attorney go at it. That final moment when the verdict is rendered is a great movie moment in a great documentary. (Note: The squeamish should be warned that there's a hog-butchering scene in the film that conveys the elemental nature of farm life.)

"Brother's Keeper"

Documentary.

Directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce

Sinofsky.

Released by Creative Thinking.

Unrated.

*** 1/2

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