Published on February 27th, 2016 | by Clint Davis
Brother’s Keeper 
Summary: A documentary free of frills, set in a rural community that rallies around an accused killer. This film makes the audience question their own definition of murder.
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Length: 104 mins.
Directors, Editors: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky
Distribution: New Video Group
What separates Brother’s Keeper from just about every other true-crime documentary ever made is that it is a universally relatable film. Its story and themes are so universally human that the murder at its center becomes almost a footnote — an insignificant detail to the audience in a story about outcasts.
In fact, labeling this film a true-crime documentary at all is a misnomer. Sure, it presents the facts and proceedings of a curious murder trial but not with the objective of freeing a wrongful prisoner or reopening a case. The death in question — if indeed a homicide — can be forgiven by many viewers once they’ve spent 104 minutes getting to know the accused killer and his complicated relationship with the victim.
Brother’s Keeper is one of the true masterpieces of documentary cinema — one that haunts and warms its viewers in equal measure, while challenging them to rethink their own definition of murder. This movie is about much more than a slaying. This is a film about community and family which also presents some troubling anecdotes about how the American criminal justice system treats uneducated people.
Directed by the powerhouse documentary duo Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Paradise Lost (trilogy); Some Kind of Monster), Brother’s Keeper follows the 1991 trial of Delbert Ward, a 59-year-old man accused of murdering his older brother — and best friend — Bill by suffocating him during the night. The pair of siblings lived in a two-room shack in rural New York along with their two other brothers Roscoe and Lyman.
At the crux of Brother’s Keeper is the community the Ward boys — as they are called by neighbors — are supported by during the ordeal. A couple of the brothers’ friends tell Berlinger and Sinofsky’s cameras that they think Delbert may have actually committed the crime, but they continue to support him unwaveringly because they know the strength of his moral fiber.
By all accounts given in the film, Bill was a sick man who was kept awake most nights by severe headaches and stomach pain caused by what his brothers believe was undiagnosed cancer. If Delbert did murder his brother, it was likely to end his suffering. This key factor is what makes the community of Munnsville stand by Delbert, who vehemently denies killing Bill, despite having signed a confession saying he did indeed commit the crime.
The Ward boys are uneducated, illiterate and even referred to as “retarded” by Delbert’s defense attorney during the trial. When asked about the confession by Berlinger and Sinofsky, Delbert claims he was pressured into signing it by investigators. He allegedly did not know what he was doing when he waived his right to an attorney.
What separates Brother’s Keeper from many popular documentaries is the nearly total absence of its directors in the final product. We never see Berlinger and Sinofsky in the film, they don’t narrate or editorialize what the audience is seeing and hearing. The only time we hear their voices is when they ask questions to their subjects from off screen. In short, the filmmakers treat the camera as a so-called fly on the wall for most of the movie.
This movie was a truly independent production. According to reports, Berlinger and Sinofsky financed the project themselves, raising about $500,000 for costs. This was the pair’s debut feature and it marked the beginning of a filmmaking partnership that would be fruitful until Sinofsky’s death in 2015.
Watching Brother’s Keeper is a treat if only to see the makings of two talented documentarians finding their feet. This movie is completely devoid of frills. It’s presented in 4:3 aspect ratio (square), with post production limited to simple graphics identifying the interview subjects.
The film’s folksy music was composed and performed by the bluegrass duo of Jay Ungar and Molly Mason, who’d previously composed the theme music for Ken Burns’ classic PBS documentary The Civil War. The soundtrack mostly keeps things light, which is another way in which this film deviates itself from many documentaries that follow murder cases. Brother’s Keeper has more heart than most any crime film you’ll ever see and its music goes a long way in transporting the audience to the movie’s rustic setting.
The Ward boys are surely a group of oddities in 1990s America. As dial-up internet was beginning to connect thousands of homes, these brothers lived in a home without heat or running water and supposedly subsisted on about $7,000 a year. None of them ever married — they had no interest in women, as Lyman Ward tells the filmmakers — and their personal appearance and hygiene kept most people in their community at arm’s length.
One well-meaning neighbor says at local restaurants, people wouldn’t sit down at the table the brothers had gotten up from because of the smell. Despite voicing that opinion, that same neighbor donated the first $1,000 in support of Delbert’s bail release when he was arrested.
That anecdote sums up the central theme of Brother’s Keeper: no man is an island. The Ward boys are surely outcasts, even considered strange by the rural folks who’ve known them forever, but they are Munnsville’s outcasts. The community of Munnsville never abandons Delbert and appears to pull him closer than ever in light of the murder accusation. The townspeople attempt to understand him and his alleged action in a way the national media — and state investigators — fail to.
Another aspect of Brother’s Keeper is its examination of the intense media coverage Delbert’s trial received. We see a gang of local and national television news crews crowding this remote village and talking about the Ward boys in a way that almost feels derogatory. The descriptions used in the reports focus on the ways in which the Ward boys are different, excluded from average society. Berlinger and Sinofsky focus more on the brothers’ reactions to the reports on them, than the actual reports themselves.
One interesting scene is a long take inside the Wards’ home, as Delbert, Roscoe and a friend watch Connie Chung’s profile of them and the murder investigation. The camera pans from the small TV where the report is airing to the men’s faces as they listen to her talking directly about them. The striking detail we notice in this scene is the total lack of a reaction to the report from the Ward brothers. Delbert especially watches with a vacant expression, save for a slight smile.
The stoicism the Ward brothers exhibit during the entire film can perhaps be viewed as a reflection of their lack of education — or as a close friend describes them, “they are like little boys in old men’s bodies.” The audience begins to wonder whether the brothers completely comprehend the gravity of the situation.
Until the brothers take the stand, that is.
The third act of Brother’s Keeper consists heavily of courtroom video during Delbert’s murder trial. This is where the film gets a much-needed dose of emotion. We see Lyman, arguably the most tight-lipped of the Ward brothers, completely break down as he’s questioned about Delbert’s role in Bill’s death. We watch as a 70-year-old man appear to completely lose control of verbal speech and physically crumble into an incoherent mess.
It’s a breathtaking scene of human complexity.
On the whole, Brother’s Keeper is not a movie wrought with feelings. The people it follows are plainspoken folks who don’t break into tears. This is not an emotionally draining film but the matter-of-fact style with which it carries itself makes Lyman’s moment on the stand all the more powerful. This is an old man who’s lived his life in isolation, suddenly thrust into the national spotlight as he’s mourning for the brother he lost — and one he could lose based in part on his testimony.
Honestly, I’d give Brother’s Keeper a perfect grade if it weren’t for a single scene I find unwatchable and completely unnecessary in the movie’s narrative. Toward the end of the picture, we witness a friend of the Wards as he kills and slaughters a pig by hand. In graphic detail, we see the man shoot the animal in the head before cutting its throat as it squirms for its life. He then hacks at the animal’s limbs and flays its skin off with a knife.
Every time I watch Brother’s Keeper, I think about why Berlinger and Sinofsky felt this lengthy scene needed to be included in the final cut. A literal representation of the brutality of farm life is not necessary because a friend of the Wards makes a much more eloquent verbal comparison between Bill’s merciful death and the common practice of putting a suffering animal out of its misery earlier in the film. And if the scene is meant as a symbolic representation of Bill’s slaying, it’s a miserable failure as the pig appears perfectly healthy and the farmer shows no care for the animal he’s slaughtering.
Brother’s Keeper is seen as the setup piece for directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s 1996 masterpiece Paradise Lost. The latter film again focuses on the investigation of a murder allegedly carried out by a group of social outcasts who find support in a larger community outside of their own small town. But Brother’s Keeper is much more than a stepping stone; it’s an outstanding film all its own.