Director: David Yarovesky
Stars: Elizabeth Banks, Jackson A. Dunn, David Denman
With superhero movies smothering the mainstream market, there’s a level of despondency that comes from realising that they’re now heavily influencing the precious few ‘original’ ideas that make it through around the margins. For example Brightburn (exec produced by Guardians Of The Galaxy‘s James Gunn, and written by fellow Gunns); a retelling of the Superman origin story but with the simple twist: what if the kid was a nasty little psycho?
Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denman) are the couple who strike it lucky one night, finding a UFO with a child inside that has crashed on their farm property (a farm which, by the by, produces nothing). They name the kid Brandon. Fast-forward 12 years and they’ve spun a story of being his adoptive parents, but puberty has awoken something malevolent in Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn). He starts acting out in violent and supernatural ways, cultivating a superhero-style look in the process.
Watching these changes in Brandon, one can’t help but feel the same sense of warped superiority and self-imposed exile that you read about in profiles of the perpetrators of American high school shootings. Brandon fits the stereotype, from his horrible peeping tom fixation with classmate Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter) to his vocalised claim that the reason he’s an outsider is that he’s better than everyone. There’s a deep vein of toxic entitlement here that goes far beyond the everyday odd dalliances of teenage boys.
Wrapping this up in the aesthetic of a comic book antihero, then, feels problematic. To a majority of viewers, sure, Brandon and his deeds will be scary. But one can’t help but wonder if troubled youngsters might find validation in Brightburn. It opens up a can of worms, as this argument has always assumed people are empty vessels waiting to be filled with whatever Hollywood provides them. Cinema reflects violence, rather than creates it. Still, in the age of hateful internet trolls and mass shootings, Brandon Breyer feels like an irresponsible avatar, one that could bite these filmmakers in the ass.
Of course, the ways in which Brandon lashes out at the world grow more and more extreme. In a sketchbook he even expresses a daydream of destroying the entire world with the piercing beams of red light that emanate from his eyes. The source of this expanding aggression is frustratingly left unexplored. The throwaway assumption is that it is something that has been psychically communicated to him, but it never rears its head in the narrative again. A switch has been flipped and Brandon has gone from reasonably well-adjusted to homicidally insane.
The feeling this gives is of a text that’s been gutted, something that infects every other pore of the picture. Brightburn is an incredibly unusual studio picture in that it honestly feels as though it has been entirely shorn of its first and third acts.
Now, I’m all in favour of getting through your material economically, but the impatience displayed is galling. Director David Yarovesky is given no room in which to set-up his characters, or even to set a baseline in terms of tone. Cheap jump-scares and otherworldly hijinx clamour in through every available nook and cranny. This means that from the off the film operates at an American Horror Story level of hyperactivity and hysteria. All we know about Tori, for instance, is that she’s the kind of mom who wears a Ramones t-shirt but probably doesn’t know who they were.
Brightburn delivers some surprisingly gnarly gore effects for a major studio picture, and the genre fan in me relishes something so decidedly niche and punkish splattering out into major multiplexes, but such gruesome thrills are offset by the lack of inspiration anywhere else. Yarovesky has precisely two tricks up his sleeve; the cheap jump scare and Brandon’s fixation with playing hide and seek with his prey. This now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t routine is trotted out for each and every instance of Brandon going off the rails (which is a lot and often). It becomes very tiresome.
There are a lot of conversations started in this picture. The aforementioned conversation about American high school violence and where that springs from. Also, the role and emotional toil of being a foster parent (kudos to Elizabeth Banks for really trying with the material here). And Brandon’s alien nature alludes pointedly to the US’s continuing strife with xenophobia; an innate distrust that perhaps causes a ricochet effect; action and reaction.
But no conclusions can be drawn, because Brightburn takes something even more insipid from the superhero genre; the impulse to franchise itself.
A chaotic and perfunctory showdown (I want to ask these cops what exactly a ‘217’ is) smashes into the end credits, which are interspersed with a long-time Gunn collaborator rallying at the screen, vlogger style. The intention is clear. Much like M Night Shyamalan’s Split, Brightburn shows frightful ambitions for its own cinematic universe. The cost is any sense of resolution or greater understanding of what caused the events of this picture. For a change someone thought to make the prequel before the main event, but the effect is unsatisfying in the extreme. It’s not an understatement to say that it kills the film.
Which is a shame. This flick repeatedly shows the potential to be about things and once you acclimatise to its frantic pace it is quite entertaining in a scattershot kind of way. But there’s no getting over the fact that the story feels critically broken; amputated at both ends.