Mr. Brooks

That Kevin Costner is a wily fellow. He’ll star in a string of terrible movies (I’m sure you don’t need a list), then surprise us with a good one (“Open Range”), then try a little comedy (“The Upside of Anger,” “Rumor Has It”), then turn around and play a schizophrenic serial killer. Here’s a man who’s famous for being inexpressive and bland, yet who manages to keep surprising us nonetheless. A wily fellow indeed.

He plays the title character in “Mr. Brooks,” a chewy morsel of psycho-killer intrigue that’s as unpredictable as Costner’s career choices. I’ve certainly seen smarter movies of this type, but one of the nice things about “Mr. Brooks” is that it doesn’t claim to be particularly clever. It strives instead for chilling semi-cheesiness, and it pulls that off just fine.

Earl Brooks is a successful and beloved businessman in Portland, Ore. He is also a serial killer, egged on by his imaginary partner/alter ego/Mr. Hyde/unbridled id, a man named Marshall (William Hurt). Marshall is essentially a voice in Mr. Brooks’ head, though the film takes it a step further by giving him a body and a face, too. It makes it that much more unsettling when Brooks has a conversation with him even while other people are in the room.

Brooks has a supportive wife, Emma (Marg Helgenberger), and a loving daughter, Jane (Danielle Panabaker), who has just dropped out of her first year of college and is at odds with her mother. They have no idea what Daddy does in his spare time, of course, and in fact the murders Brooks commits at the start of the film are his first in two years. He uses Alcoholics Anonymous principles to keep his addiction under control, and he loathes Marshall and his influence over him.

There was a witness to the latest killings, an unhinged loner who calls himself Mr. Smith (Dane Cook). He has pictures of Brooks at the crime scene, and he tracks him down and makes him a deal: Either Brooks takes Smith on a ride-along for his next murder to show him the ropes (Smith has aspirations of being a killer, too), or Smith takes the photos to the police. Marshall points out the obvious solution, which is to take Mr. Smith on his little outing and then kill him, too.

It’s not as simple as that, though, and another dimension is added when Brooks discovers that a cop named Atwood (Demi Moore) is getting awfully close to catching him. Brooks and Marshall have to string Smith along, get Atwood out of the way, and keep Emma and Jane in the dark, all without breaking a sweat or losing control. Mr. Brooks makes being a cold, calculating killer seem easy.

The film’s only significant flaw is a lack of focus. Director Bruce A. Evans, who wrote the script with Raynold Gideon (the two also penned “Jungle 2 Jungle,” “Stand By Man,” and “Starman”), has included a puzzlingly irrelevant subplot involving Det. Atwood’s messy divorce and her search for another serial killer who has recently escaped from prison. “Mr. Brooks” is reportedly intended as the first film in a trilogy, so perhaps all the attention paid to Atwood’s personal life is meant as set-up for later installments. Whatever the reason, it slows down what could have been a taut thriller.

Still, it’s almost always fun to watch movies about crazy people. There are a few choice moments when Mr. Brooks and Marshall laugh together, sounding like a parody of maniacal killers and, at the same time, like a legitimately creepy pair of maniacal killers. Costner gives the tormented Mr. Brooks enough layers and levels to make him sympathetic as a conflicted soul who wants to stop the madness, while William Hurt gets to have fun as Marshall, the embodiment of Mr. Brooks’ psychopathic tendencies.

Are some of the movie’s scenarios a bit ludicrous? Heavens yes. But even its most absurd ideas are tantalizingly creative and sinister, enough to make you want to see them through rather than scoff and turn away.

B (2 hrs.; R, abundant harsh profanity, a scene of strong sexuality with some nudity, brief very strong violence.)