Director David Yarovesky’s gory horror film finds an infertile Kansas couple raising a burgeoning villain with super powers in a horrific treatment that draws influence from Superman’s origin story.
Director: David Yarovesky
Writers: Brian Gunn & Mark Gunn
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman and Jackson A. Dunn
Brightburn opens with a slow pan over the bookshelves of Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Bryer (David Denman). The shelves are filled with books about parenthood and infertility, which anticipates Tori’s offscreen dialogue about getting pregnant. The couple, who are making out in the master bedroom of their gorgeous Kansas farmhouse, are quickly interrupted, however, by a rattling that shakes the house and extinguishes the lights. When Tori looks out the window, she sees the crash site of a meteorite in the field outside, bathed in an eerie red glow. A quick cut switches to the couple’s home video of a baby, accompanied by a soundtrack of Tori cooing in support of the baby’s development progress. Another quick cut flashes forward ten years and the baby – Brandon – is now a well-behaved and intelligent, albeit meek and bullied, boy (Jackson A. Dunn).
The decision by writers Brian and Mark Gunn to eschew the details about the adoption and the ten intervening years is both savvy and challenging. Savvy because at the end of the day, this is a film about a child who develops super powers and, lacking the maturity and the humanity to manage them, begins to hurt people (no, that’s not a spoiler). The audience knows exactly what Brandon is becoming, so it makes sense for the 91 minute film to cut out the extraneous exposition and dedicate its time to Brandon’s transformation into a super villain.
And yet…without that additional context and relationship building, Brightburn frequently feels like an abridged version of a film – at least early on. There are several brief scenes that establish Tori’s playful relationship with her son (marked by a whistling version of “Marco Polo”), as well as the bullying that Brandon experiences at school and the classmate, Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter), who supports and encourages him. But these scenes tend to come off as rushed and perfunctory; there’s a sense that the Gunns include them strictly because they’re required in order to pay off the violent encounters to come. As a result, many of the character relationships feel extremely shallow, including the roughly handled introduction of Tori’s sister, Merilee (Meredith Hagner) the guidance counsellor at Brandon’s school, and her husband, Noah McNichol (Matt Jones).
We’ve barely been introduced to any of the characters when Brandon is awakened in the middle of the night by an ominous signal tied to the hidden spaceship stashed in the barn. The sound is otherworldly and features a garbled voice speaking a barely discernible language which induces spasms and sleepwalking in the boy. Almost immediately thereafter Brandon begins exhibiting – and taking note of – his burgeoning powers such as invulnerability, super speed and strength, flight and laser vision (presumably these are modelled after Superman, but Brightburn never acknowledges the man of steel or any other comic book characters). Unsurprisingly violence follows.
By the time that Tori and Kyle realize that their son isn’t simply going through puberty and is actually a remorseless killer, Brightburn is barreling towards the climax. Admittedly neither adult is asked to do much more than express love for their adopted child and then look scared of him, but Banks has more to play with as the mother who desperately wants to believe that there is still good in her child.
In this capacity the film follows in the same well-travelled footsteps of February’s The Prodigy (Sidebar: where do the fathers in these films disappear to for such long stretches?). Banks does what she can with the relatively fairly thin material, but Brightburn is ultimately a film with more interest in its premise than its characters. This also applies to Dunn, who is fine, but barely has two scenes of normalcy before Brandon shifts into creepy kid/super villain mode for the remainder of the film.
Complaints about character development and Tori and Kyle’s slow reaction time are mostly forgiven thanks to the film’s ace in the hole: its gore. Slasher fans will find plenty to enjoy in the way that Brightburn structures its action sequences and the inclusion of a super powered killer results in carnage on an otherworldly scale. Although a good portion of the attack on Caitlyn’s mother, Erica (Becky Wahlstrom) in the diner has already been revealed in the film’s trailer, it is just one of several stand-out sequences. And while Yarovesky does have a tendency to use Brandon’s so-fast-it’s-blurry powers of flight to cut away from a kill, the director doesn’t shy away from revealing what the bodies (or what’s left of them) look like in the aftermath. Thankfully the majority of the blood and guts make-up is practical, while nicely counterbalances the visual effects of Brandon’s powers.
Naturally Tori’s internal emotional battle and Brandon’s escalating murder spree come together in the climax, as the film’s strengths coalesce in spectacularly satisfying fashion. The coda, which not so coincidentally features a Gunn family favourite, is also open-ended enough to facilitate another entry should the film find an audience. Considering the film’s estimated $7M budget, it’s not hard to imagine that we’re witnessing the birth of a new horror franchise.
The Bottom Line: While Brightburn gives its characters short shrift, the film deserves praise for its willingness to go dark and gory. 3.5/5