Review: BRIGHTBURN is a gory and well-acted answer to "What if Superman was evil?"
“Take the world.”
David Yarovesky’s superhero horror film BRIGHTBURN, written by brothers Mark and Brian Gunn and produced by GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY’s James Gunn, opened this weekend and promises a lot of atmosphere, effective gore, and great performances but a shallow amount of depth.
BRIGHTBURN sells itself on the idea “What if Superman was evil?”. The film opens in Kansas circa 2006 as young farming couple Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) are struggling to conceive a child...until one falls right out of the sky. This Jonathan and Martha Kent archetype raise their alien child as Brendan Bryer (Jackson A. Dunn) in relative peace until he turns 12 and, on his birthday, the alien spaceship he arrived in begins to hypnotize him, awakening his latent superhuman powers and finally convincing him, eyes aflame and suspended in the air, to “Take the world.”
Sweet Brendan soon realizes he’s special...very special...and instead of donning a red cape and slicking his hair back for “Truth, justice, and the American way” he sets out to rule the world, one gruesome kill at a time.
BRIGHTBURN could very easily be examined as a cautionary tale of toxic masculinity in today’s sociopolitical climate, but The Gunn Brothers and director Yarovesky throw subtext to the side in favor of some writing so on-the-nose it almost feels like parody.
That isn’t to say it’s ineffective, however. The faults and lack of any narrative depth are hidden behind the trio of actors at the film’s center and newcomer Jackson A. Dunn’s creepy and sadistic performance as Brendan harkens back to other youthful boyish harbingers of malice like PSYCHO’s Norman Bates or THE OMEN’s Damien. He is genuinely unnerving and flips the switch from “sweet prepubescent boy” to “terrifying lunatic” with ease.
Elizabeth Banks really takes the spotlight here though as Brendan’s adoptive mother Tori. She’s a struggling artist and a mother who believes in her son with all her heart until the bodies start piling up around them and she has to accept the fact that her baby boy is a monster. Banks is a wonderful actor and a genre star at this point, and it seems like her and co-star David Denman are acting in a movie far beyond this one.
BRIGHTBURN promises some gore and kills, as all horror movies love to give, and exceeds well at the few-and-far-between kills. We get to see Brendan use his heat vision to melt someone’s face off, and one particularly gruesome scene sees a man’s jaw snap off from the trauma of striking a steering wheel in one very unnerving (and almost comedic) scene.
In terms of direction, BRIGHTBURN is a well-done film. A lot of nice (if predictable) camera work helps sell the spookier scenes, and a few particularly great shots of the Breyer farm seem like they belong in a film way better than this one. My biggest gripe, a relatively small one though, is the fact that the film lacks a sense of space or geography. Is “Brightburn” the name of the town they live in or the Kansas County they’re in? We never get a clear answer, but whatever.
It’s a middle of the road horror film with a fantastic (if tired) concept that is anchored by great performances and peppered with genuinely good moments that come close to outweighing the often mundane execution and puddle-deep narrative. The ending, however, is utterly insane as we see an Alex Jones-esque conspiracy nut on YouTube screaming about these homicidal superheroes including a Creepy looking woman who uses a lasso to hang her victims and a “fish-man” causing havoc in the seas. The promise of what is to come- a Justice League of horror- is something to look forward to.
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