Directed by: Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky / 1992
“And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?”
-GENESIS / 4 : 8, 9
Driving the back roads of central and northwestern New York state had me sensing a connection to my rural Missouri roots. The blacktop slicing and winding the ridges of small towns, dilapidated shacks and farm equipment strewn across a green and rolly landscape dotted with cattle and sheep gave me the feeling of my boyhood home and farm community. “Brother’s Keeper” is a story about the Ward Brothers of Munnsville, NY, just off the map from the roads I traveled last summer. The brothers look and interact with an environment as if they and it are torn from a page of my family history. Wooly Mammoth-bearded and cloaked as if they haven’t changed clothes in six months, as if they’d looked that way since birth, Adelbert (aka: just Delbert), Lyman, Roscoe and the late William Ward are like early cave dwelling nomads (what I envision the characters crawling out of Cormac McCarthy’s outstanding post-apocalyptic book “The Road” will look like on the silver screen this winter). With layers of flannel, denim and tattered coats clinging to weathered and crackled bodies, educations and I.Q.s that aren’t necessarily at the mentally retarded level but at their own country-bumpkin-mumble-social-deprivation one, the elderly brothers are-what-they-are and there is nothing wrong with that. They butcher hogs in the front lawn (who doesn’t!?), leave their old farm machinery and vehicles where they die (why not?), keep their poultry in an old school bus (seen it-love it), live in the trashy shack they grew-up in (I know people like this), stack working televisions on top of old ones (yep), keep the same fly paper strip tacked up for 20 years (for sure), sleep in the same bed (well, maybe not for me but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for some people who don’t know any different) and till and milk a long family line of dirt and cows (for sure). Though the brothers can barely read, write or tell time they know their chores and family farm duties by heart and hand. In a community of farmers and folk who barely extend beyond what they know of their small town radius, the Ward brothers are indeed on the outside of the world, even their own. They are the type of people who are always together and ride into town on a tractor, barely communicating more than “Alright”, “Yep”, “Good” and “Uh-huh”. They are more than just genuine “Good Ol’ Boys”, and as one neighbor/friend puts-it and right in front of them, “They’re good boys. Actually they are like little boys with old faces.” In many ways I can relate to the Ward brothers, not only in my youthful blood and implanted observations, but also in my sometimes want for a simpler life, maybe not exactly similar to a Ward life, but you get my drift. But why a movie about them, what makes their story so fascinating and not simply the exploitation of an “eccentric” or “outsider” life, a life that they and many people choose or simply know how to live? What directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (both behind “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” and many other documentaries) present with their excellent “Brother’s Keeper” is what became the controversial aftermath of the 1991 death of the eldest Ward brother, William. It’s a story that received a wide-range of media attention for the reclusive and shy Ward brothers and the small town of Munnsville, NY, attention that says something for itself and our lust for cheap entertainment and taking a glimpse of things that seem “different”. Hardly anybody had stepped foot in the Ward’s home in decades, people had barely gotten in touch with the boys other than small talk and now many people were knocking on their door…even Connie Chung. Could behind the thick layers, beards and piercing, naïve childlike eyes lay a cold-blooded killer in Delbert Ward? William had been ailing for years, so could his brother commit an act of “Mercy Killing” that his other brothers knew about, no different an act they would commit for a sick tom cat or an old cow? And if so, does this open up new legal concern as can Delbert and his brothers decipher from true wrong and right in such a scenario of judgment? And did Delbert naively say and sign a testimony he could not read or understand or was he tricked into it by bullying police officials who saw him as a joke? Or, was William’s death a crime of incest/sexual-murder, as prosecuting attorneys claim they have proof of. Finally, was this a case that extended further into the politics of sprawling suburbia hoping to devour up the small town farms and families? The answers are buried at the end of the film in a real life nail-biting court room drama. And perhaps your own conclusions, answers or assumptions might even be revealed from behind those Ward beards and the supporting cast of a loving community that stuck with Delbert and his brothers. It’s such a peculiar, unique and fascinating story that at times rings the popular tune of “Big Shots vs. Under Dogs” revealing harsh glimpses of our judicial and social system that I feel in this story is every bit as disturbing and important as the infamous O.J. Simpson murder trial. On a lighter note (good or a bit iffy about it?), I think the attention for the Ward brothers has caused them to crack out of their weathered shells a little bit, by way of becoming more involved with the world's workings and even more open to their community. Also, be sure to watch the DVD extras for a wonderfully sweet short film titled “The Wards Take Manhattan”. Originally intended to be the film’s closing scene (later traded for a traditional Munnsville ending), it charmingly shows the Wards' visit to New York City for the first time, a worldly city that is only a short drive away from their isolated one just down the back roads.