Brother’s Keeper: Riveting Docu about Murder Case

Brother’s Keeper is a discomforting, almost surreal study of a rural murder case. The major players are four brothers: Delbert, Bill, Lyman, and Roscoe Ward. They have lived together for 60 years, each pair sharing a bed and helping each other with the farm chores. Then, on June 6, 1990, Bill is found dead from suffocation and Delbert is arrested after allegedly confessing to the crime.

But the case is not closed. Doubts rise to the surface from the townspeople as Delbert’s story begins to sound different–and quite plausible. Moreover, police improprieties come to light. Suddenly a mercy killing of an ailing brother transforms into a vicious case of entrapment, with homophobic and authoritarian police stepping all over a poor, illiterate farmer.

Berlinger and Sinofsky capture without patronizing or glorifying their complex subject matter. Some of what they reveal is unsurprising: anti-big city law enforcement, a community defending their own, police stonewalling. But they also document some unusual peculiarities as, for example, the brothers’ articulate cousin standing up to Delbert and Bill’s privacy–even if it means defending intimations of homosexuality and incest.

Most engaging, however, is the depiction of the simple and yet undeniably eccentric life of the brothers themselves. On one level, the aptly titled Brother’s Keeper is about the occasional triumph of the downtrodden (Delbert is acquitted, even if his innocence is not so clear) over a frighteningly pervasive and arrogant law enforcement structure.

In the final account, this riveting documentary is much more than a case study. The picture presents an unusual and direct dissent from our modern notions of justice and community. Throughout, there is the refreshing feeling of camaraderie, of people being concerned and taking care of one another.

Effectively interweaving personal revelations with official documents, the co-directors have created a mesmerizing portrait of the justice system. Indeed, what one thinks about the American system will depend on the viewer’s perception of this movie. Audiences have been quite divided about the guilt or innocence of Delbert Ward.

This sensitive, cinema-verite exploration of human compassion also boasts superior technical skills, particularly Douglas Cooper’s crisp cinematography and Jay Ungar and Molly Mason’s evocative music.

Most impressively, Brother’s Keeper marks the directorial feature debut of Joe Berlinger, who made in 1989 the short Outrageous Taxi Stories, and Bruce Sinofsky, a graduate of New York University Film School who worked for a while as an editor at the Maysles Films.