BROTHER'S KEEPER (directors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky; cinematographer: Douglas Cooper; editor: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky; music: Jay Ungar/Molly Mason; Runtime: 104; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky; IFC; 1992)

"The excellent humanistic documentary is a rich slice of life piece of Americana."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky direct this straight-forward documentary about the 59-year-old Delbert Ward, a semi-literate dairy farmer on a 99-acre farm in Munnsville, New York (pop. 499), who is charged by the New York State Police with suffocating to death his ailing 64-year-old brother Bill on June 6, 1990. The filmmakers ask was it a mercy killing as the state claims or did Bill die a natural death as Delbert and his other poorly educated brothers Roscoe and Lyman claim.

The filmmakers get obsessed with exploring this rural central New York farming community and interview scores of locals as the trial moves forward, who prior to the murder charge considered the boys outsiders--harmless oddballs--because they slept in the same bed for warmth, had no heating system or telephone or running water or indoor toilet in the squalid shack they lived in. But now the locals fully support the boys as one of their own and raise $10,000 for Delbert's bail and the hiring of a lawyer to defend him. The state police come out looking like the bad guys, as they get a confession out of Delbert without a lawyer present. 

The excellent humanistic documentary is a rich slice of life piece of Americana that takes us inside a rural America seldom seen by the public. The trial will become a media circus (even Connie Chung gets in the act by visiting the brothers in her limo) when the state further contends it was a sex gone bad murder case. This is contested when the locals hire Ralph A. Cognetti, a hot-shot Syracuse defense lawyer. In the end, the film raises more questions than it answers, even when the verdict is presented it ends on an ambiguous note. The shrewd locals get it right when they say: maybe a pesky young DA with political aspirations made this a case when it wasn't, or it's some kind of a suburban land grab, or Delbert, to their approval, just decided to put his pained brother out of his misery. None of the locals believe Delbert is a murderer or should have been put on trial, something the citified prosecutor and state police never understood.

REVIEWED ON 3/15/2011       GRADE: A

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"