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'Brother's Keeper' Is A Haunting Documentary About A Rural Murder Mystery

Updated August 25, 2020 86.6k views14 items

Modern true-crime documentaries tend to have a specific look and feel, but 1992's Brother’s Keeper - a harrowing, empathetic look at the death of a rural cow farmer in Upstate New York and the firestorm of the resulting trial - remains one of the most distinctive entries in the popular genre. Rather than relying on twists or last-minute evidence, Brother's Keeper simply introduces the audience to its cast and lets the story tell itself. 

After the film's release, the directors continued to make intense documentaries about intense subjects. In 2019, co-director Joe Berlinger used his true-crime roots as a springboard into dramatic filmmaking with Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a film about Ted Bundy told from the point of view of his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth Kendall. But the director's interest in dark subject matter all began with his first film.

Brother's Keeper tells the story of the Ward brothers - Delbert, Roscoe, and Lyman - whose modest life together on their family farm erupts into controversy following the death of the fourth brother, William. Delbert, the youngest of the four, is put on trial for William's murder.

  • The Ward Brothers Seem Sensitive And Simple

    The filmmakers didn't have to go out of their way to make the Ward brothers sympathetic; anyone with a heart will find them sympathetic enough without having their emotions twisted by tricky editing. It's hard not to feel for the brothers, even before the untimely passing of William brought the real world crashing into their lives. 

    In Brother's Keeper, we learn the brothers lived together on a 100-acre plot of land that once belonged to their parents. Their house had no indoor plumbing or heating, and they only made about $7,000 a year off their herd of 28 cows. The brothers rarely spoke, and instead chose to watch TV and move through their lives with a quiet simplicity. 

    While the brothers were certainly eccentric, no one in their community saw them as outcasts, and everyone referred to them as "the boys," in spite of their age.

  • Delbert Was Acquitted, But It's Not Clear Whether Or Not He Committed The Crime In Question

    At the heart of the film is the death of William Ward. It's never clear whether or not Delbert Ward murdered his brother, accidentally killed him in the middle of the night, or simply discovered his brother's body one morning. Delbert was acquitted of the crime after a harrowing trial, but it's not clear if the jury was simply sympathetic to the unlikelihood of his survival in prison, or if they actually thought he was innocent. 

    According to Berlinger, the film doesn't seek to solve the central mystery, and he admits that working on the film helped him change his opinion of the crime "180 degrees." He hopes audiences can simply observe the lives of the Ward brothers rather than judge them. He told the LA Times, "By the time the film closes, the question of Delbert's guilt or innocence has become irrelevant because you've become involved with these peoples' lives."

  • There Are Some Graphic Scenes Of Farm Life In The Film

    Much of the footage of the Ward brothers on their farm borders on the disturbing. The most intense sequence involves a pig slaughter, but it's not just one scene or another that makes the farm footage stomach-churning - it's the weight of every scene combined.

    The brothers lived next to their farm in a glorified shack, and because they had been taking care of themselves since 1965, they had a particular way of living to which they had grown accustomed. To an outsider, the lifestyle can come across as odd, if not unsettling. The brothers often wore the same clothes until they stiffened with manure, and instead of washing their jeans, they just burned them

    It's clear the Wards barely scraped by, and that their squalid arrangement was something they either didn't care to change or didn't know how to fix.

  • The Directors Were Able To Film Delbert's Trial

    The amount of access the directors had to the Ward family is impressive. They were allowed to explore the brothers' home and their farm, and were even allowed to film the trial. As fascinating as this portion of the story is, it may be difficult for some to watch the Ward brothers testify.

    The film shows Lyman Ward having a full-on breakdown on the stand as he completely crumbles under the prosecutor's questioning. As one member of the court says: "They don't treat animals that bad."