A real-life murder case provides the fodder for Brother’s Keeper, co-directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. In 1990, Delbert Ward was accused of smothering his elderly brother in his sleep, in order to spare him from the painful illness he had been suffering. Yet as the investigation unfolds, more questions seem to arise. Was Delbert coerced into confession by police? Was it simply a natural death in unusual circumstances? Or, might something more sinister than a mercy killing have happened?
Berlinger and Sinofsky had direct access to Delbert while he was out on bail. And so the movie consists partly of mumbled interviews with Delbert and his two other brothers, Roscoe and Lyman. Known collectively as the “Ward boys” in the upstate region of New York where they farmed, these men seem plucked from another age. Uneducated, heavily bearded and living in third-world squalor, they were mostly ignored by their neighbors (one woman talks about their smell) until Delbert’s arrest, when the community rallied around him, unable to believe he’d be capable of such a crime. As one district attorney put it, Delbert was an outcast, but “he was still their outcast.”
Brother’s Keeper could be accused of exploiting the Wards – there’s a painful scene of the socially phobic Lyman squeezing himself through a barn door to escape the camera – except that the movie develops exploitation as one of its themes. Whether it’s the investigators who may (or may not) have taken advantage of Delbert’s mental deficiencies to get him to sign a confession, or it’s the townsfolk and local news crews who used Delbert’s case to grab their own moment in the sun, or it’s Delbert himself exploiting country-bumpkin stereotypes to cover his own guilt (a shuddering possibility the movie leaves us with), Brother’s Keeper is more of a fly on the wall than opportunistic shock doc.