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Brother's Keeper (1992)

  Directed by: Joe Berlinger, Bruce Sinofsky
Starring: Delbert Ward, Lyman Ward, Roscoe Ward
Links: Brother's Keeper on the IMDb, Buy on Video, Buy on DVD
Genre: Documentary

This movie gets: 6.00 (1 rating) Ranking: not yet ranked (awaiting 2 ratings)

"Perhaps in another time..." - a review by pearly

I've been a bit spoiled for choice with documentaries of late. Everyone has. It's the year of the documentary, with everyone latching onto the realisation that reality television doesn't just have to be television, but films can also contain real life situations (often more real than anything reality television throws at us, but not always), and be popular at the same time.

This wasn't always the case. I remember when it was a rare treat to see a documentary available for your viewing pleasure at a cinema. It's not hard to remember that time, as it really wasn't all that long ago. As recently as when Bowling for Columbine (2002) was released, I would only see about one documentary a month (or thereabouts) at any of my local cinemas. Nowadays though, it's not unusual to see two or three on at the same cinema at the same time (depending, of course, on which cinema - this still doesn't happen with mega-mainstream ones).

Brother's Keeper comes from a time (1992) when docos were few and far between. A story like the one told in this film could, I'm sure, have gotten people interested, because this was something coming at us from real life, not just from some scriptwriter's head. This would have been something of a novelty (though now I'm probably talking it up too much - the IMDb tells us that there were indeed at least five other documentary features released in the year that Brother's Keeper would have been eligible to win, though it's saying something that I have never heard of any of them, including the winner, The Panama Deception (1992), but I have most definitely heard of all the nominees for Best Picture).

Brother's Keeper follows a murder trial where Delbert Ward is the accused. Delbert is what city-folk would call a "country bumpkin" (at least, according to one of the folks interviewed); an illiterate farmer who lives in a tiny house with his two brothers (and, until recently, his three brothers). The brothers are all in their fifties or sixties, and William Ward (A.K.A. Bill) has recently passed away.

The three remaining brothers are taken into custody, and it is determined that Delbert suffocated Bill whilst Bill slept. Delbert even signs a confession stating that this is what happened, although he later says that he cannot read without his glasses, which he never has with him, and in actual fact, he cannot read at all.

The film follows the brothers after this time, in the lead-up to Delbert's trial. The filmmakers interview Delbert and his brothers, as well as many others in the community; people who are rallying around the brothers and who, for the most part, do not believe that Delbert had anything to do with Bill's death.

In structure and content, the film reminded me a fair bit of Capturing the Friedmans (2003), although this film relies 100% on footage shot by the filmmakers, whereas Capturing the Friedmans used a lot of home videos to form the basis of the film. Also, Brother's Keeper is a lot more clear-cut in its version of what the truth is, though there is still some room left for doubt.

If I had seen this film for the first time back in 1992, I'm sure it would have had a different impact on me than it did having seen it for the first time yesterday. Brother's Keeper tells an interesting story, but it is not as compelling as some of the other documentaries I have seen (nor even as compelling as some of the other work by these directors). Also, I found that, at times, the brothers spoke in such slurs that it was extremely difficult to figure out what they were saying, and some of the time I didn't figure it out at all. Subtitles would have been a nice option, alas, the DVD does not contain any.

My last criticism is that while the film stayed true to its story for 95% of the way through, there was one deviation, which was a scene showing a pig being slaughtered. I don't know whether this was supposed to be a metaphor or what, but I couldn't watch, and it put me off a little bit, because I didn't see what the relevance was. I'm not easily put off, but this was a pig, darn it!

pearly gives this movie 6 out of 10.
Review created on Thu 9 Sep 2004

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Reader comments

  1. I, too, have only recently seen this film for the first time. It - and the composers of the musical score - has inspired me to search for Lyman and Roscoe, the only two surviving Ward brothers. It turns out that they only live just over an hour away from me. I visited them last weekend, and was warmly welcomed by Lyman. He's 81 now, and is a remarkable man (he is pictured in the image above). It's a privelage to have connected with him.

    Rating given: 9

    A comment from jane crispell on Wed 28 Sep 2005 05:16 #

  2. I also just saw this film and am from the general upstate NY area. My husband and I made a detour through Munnsville and met Lyman. Had I not seen this film, I would have thought he was like any other older gentleman I have met...he was warm and gave us the lay of the land and recent changes to area.

    Rating given: 10

    A comment from Ali on Wed 12 Apr 2006 15:56 #

  3. I ran across this film today on IFC. It was an amazing story and for some reason, I had never heard it. I felt for these gentlemen and wept several times during the film. It is one of the best I've seen in a while. By the way, the slaughtering of the pig was significant. It showed that the brothers had to hire someone to do it because they were too gentle to do it themselves. If they couldn't kill a pig, how could Delbert kill his own brother? So it was an important part of the film, although I had to turn away.

    Rating given: 9

    A comment from Kim on Thu 25 Dec 2008 04:42 #

Those who have commented give this movie: 9.33 (3 ratings)

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