Director Stuart Rosenberg and screenwriter W. D. Richter have a strong, grim, angry story to tell, and the urgency of their convictions overcomes the frequent clumsiness and confusion of the telling. Unsparing in its evocation of brutality, and unswerving in its commitment to Brubaker's radical, uncompromising ideals, the film at its best provokes a powerful sense of tension and outrage. [23 June 1980, p.75]
Brubaker is a grim and depressing drama about prison outrages - a movie that should, given its absolutely realistic vision, have kept us involved from beginning to end. That it doesn't is the result, I think, of a deliberate but unwise decision to focus on the issues involved in the story, instead of on the characters.
Robert Redford stars as a reform-minded prison warden fighting for his life against a corrupt prison system. Competent but dreary. [11 July 1980, p.8]
TV Guide Magazine
A very tough movie, Brubaker is not for the squeamish. Director Stuart Rosenberg, whose spotty career includes credits ranging from Move to The Amityville Horror, moved into a higher strata with this one, but no matter who's directing him, one can't escape the feeling that Redford is the man behind the man behind the camera.
Although Richter's screenplay leaves certain large areas unexplored or unexplained -- including Brubaker's own psychological makeup and the precise linkage between the groups inside and outside Wakefield that have a vested interest in resisting reform -- there's not a bit of slack in the picture.
The New York Times
Brubaker is an earnest, right-minded, consistently unsurprising movie about a penologist named Brubaker (Robert Redford), who sets out to reform a single corrupt prison and finds himself bucking an entire system, including the state administration that appointed him to his job. It says a lot about a movie that the only mildly interesting characters in it are those who are corrupt, such as the insurance-selling member of the prison board, played by Murray Hamilton, and a smarmy building contractor, played by M. Emmet Walsh, who attempts to buy Brubaker's neighborly good feelings with a homemade chocolate cake.
Filmmakers ought to be granted time off for good intentions. Then, perhaps, those responsible for the prison film Brubaker could have gotten their do-good impulses under reasonable control, and used them to make a good picture, instead of a goody-goody one.
The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
David Keith, a native of Tennessee, had a tiny role in The Rose (as Bette Midler's soldier friend) and he is one of the few in the Brubaker cast whose accent is authentic and who appears to have the wherewithal to survive in a penitentiary. His scenes are the only respite from the movie's shrill, simplistic self-congratulation. [21 June 1980]
Time Out London
By its attribution of every evil to simple human greed, the melodrama remains hamfisted; while Rosenberg's direction signals 'realism' with crude denim-blue tints in every image. After two hours and ten minutes one is left only with a numbing awareness of Redford's charmless charm, the macho image unable (unlike Eastwood or Reynolds) to even contemplate self-irony.
Even with a sharp cast topped by the star power of Robert Redford, it’s hard to imagine a broad audience wanting to share the two hours of agony in this one, all the way to a downbeat ending with Redford the loser in his righteous battle.