It's Robert Redford versus the venality of an unchecked prison system in this gritty drama from 1980. Based on an infamous real-life case in 1960s Arkansas, Brubaker sends Redford's Henry Brubaker undercover as an inmate to expose the brutality and corruption that have turned Wakefield prison farm into a cruel gulag. After witnessing first-hand the rapes, horrid food, torture devices, slave labor, unmarked graves, and barbarism inflicted upon (and by) the prisoners, he reveals himself to the administrators as the new warden there to scoop out the rot. The revelation places Redford's tough reformer squarely against the deeply entrenched and powerful good-old-boy network that lines pockets at the expense of prisoners' humanity.
Redford is the main attraction, obviously, even though his princely good looks like the movie's "idealistic crusader against the Establishment" earnestness are almost too much of a good thing. Director Stuart Rosenberg took over material fashioned for another director (Bob Rafelson), resulting in some uneven patches. Brubaker cuts into its subject with bold, broad strokes, but as prison dramas go this unsubtle vivisection is one of the greats. Its grim, near-hopeless message unfolds with moody documentary-like realism, visualizing the prison's Third World physical deterioration and the institutionalized corruption that literally and figuratively has bodies it wants kept hidden. The cast includes Morgan Freeman, M. Emmet Walsh, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander, Wilford Brimley, David Keith, and Murray Hamilton.
The director of record was Rosenberg, and the screenplay by W.D. Richter and Arthur A. Ross was up for an Oscar, but this is quite rightly Robert Redford's baby. Make time to double-feature it with his The Last Castle made twenty-one years later.
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Fox's DVD offers an anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) and a good source-print marrred only by some ordinary grain and wear. The DD 2.0 stereo audio is fine, if sometimes a bit harsh or muddy. Extras include the theatrical trailer, three TV spots, and promos for other Fox releases. Keep-case.