What if Superman was an evil, sexually confused, angsty little boy? What if a creature akin to a god was armageddon personified? In a box office world saturated by stylishly clad superheroes, Brightburn‘s cult-destined concept is an absolute winner; yet, the film’s genre subversion is neither grisly nor clever enough to enter the legends of pulp fiction.
Think of this gutsy hybrid as Hugo Simpson II to Man of Steel‘s Bart. The trimmings are the same: rural American setting; nurturing, strong-willed parents; conflicts at school. It’s the mood that’s different; a distinct horror movie dread permeates the flick from the first emergence of radiant red in the woods (you best prepare for bloodshed).
Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) are praying for a baby; the fertility gods grant them their wish, sending a spaceship (definitely not from Krypton) into their backyard with an infant on board. Naturally, they raise him as their own “adopted” son, naming him Brandon (a jarringly inconsistent Jackson A. Dunn) – but as he reaches 12-years-old, inquisition, puberty and a cryptic calling awaken a force within hellbent on “taking the world”.
David Yarovesky is in the director’s chair; a filmmaker with a slew of shorts and one feature (2014’s The Hive). Course, you wouldn’t know that from the marketing; front and centre of the trailers is James Gunn, “the visionary director”, who was a producer on Brightburn. It’s a classic advertising gambit. Get butts in seats with a name they know, whose involvement is likely way over-exaggerated. Another couple of Gunn’s wrote the script though; Brian and Mark. Undoubtedly a wit-inherent family; but their screenplay here is sterile. Banal and tedious, laced with superficial conflicts and half-baked juvenility – the best moments are those without dialogue. Banks is a terrific actress, but her fumbling motherly devotion becomes increasingly problematic in the face of clear-as-day culpability, straying too far to the point of lunacy to be considered realistic – that said, she does have a charming chemistry with Denman throughout.
Even then, the behind-the-camera craft is unexceptional; cinematography from Michael Dallatorre is imitative of Snyder’s film, verging between exclusively pitch-black and sun-drenched landscapes with no real flourish. The score from Tim Williams rattles along and ratchets tension to a degree, but there are soft-key piano moments that have you yearning for Zimmer’s hopeful melody.
Nevertheless, Yarovesky has a grasp of the idea; the brilliant, enticing unravelling of evil played against the template of a slasher. Think Man of Steel meets The Strangers (particularly in one hair-raising, reminiscent background shot). In acknowledging the inevitable pathology of Brandon’s power (similarly to 2012’s Chronicle), the director orchestrates a number of gruesome set-pieces that see eyes impaled, hands broken, and a standout sequence with a truck that climaxes with a jaw-dropping blow. The slapdash visual language and erratic editing fall away in the name of good ol’ bloody violence (though the cheap jump scares impede the rawer fear factor).
It’s a lean thing, paced perfectly at 90 minutes. Yet, one has to wonder why they didn’t let loose a bit more and go all out with the brutality. A smart filmgoer wouldn’t see this taking high numbers (it’s going up against Toy Story 4 and Child’s Play this weekend). The reason is likely box-office related; but an ultraviolent twist on a genre some find to be fatiguing could have had longer-term success, particularly in the physical/digital media market (though, the days of the true 18-rated flick are fading). Still, the storytelling does head in an admirably bleak direction, and with a sequel teased, this may not be the last time we see Brandon Breyer.
A nihilistic cocktail of super-villainy and high-concept horror. Less Man of Steel, more Damien-El.
Directed by: David Yarovesky
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn