The biggest compliment I can give Brightburn is that, when it ended, I would have sat through a sequel immediately. It’s a film that blends two popular genres to create a scenario and world that are fascinating and terrifying, and you instantly want to learn more about them. Unfortunately, all of that is sprinkled around the edges of a poorly told story.
Directed by David Yarovesky, produced by James Gunn, and written by Brian and Mark Gunn (brother and cousin to James, respectively), Brightburn is the kind of movie everyone says they want these days. A high-concept, original idea that asks more questions than it answers and is destined to spark conversation when you walk out the theater. A film that takes a familiar story, flips it on its head, and puts it in an unfamiliar genre. All of which sounds great in concept.
The familiar idea is the origin of Superman. Meaning, a Kansas couple is shocked when an alien craft crashes on their farm and, inside, they find a baby they raise to be their own. That’s DC Comics’ classic Clark Kent story and also exactly how Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks and David Denman) come to have a son named Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn). And, like Superman, the Breyers don’t tell Brandon of his true nature until, as a teenager, he starts to realize he’s different. Here’s where things veer off course from the popular superhero. Where Superman chose to use his powers to save the world, Brandon goes in the opposite direction. Deep in his bones, for some reason, he just knows he has to “Take the World.”
At this point, Brightburn could have simply been a supervillain origin story. And it is that, undoubtedly. But the Gunns decide to tell that through the horror genre, which feels rather innovative and works incredibly well. As Brandon begins to discover what he can do and gets more ambitious with his targets, he makes prey of his victims. He stalks them, sets them up, and almost dives into their individual psychologies before making the kill—which is suitably scary and incredibly gory. Yarovesky uses all the tricks of the horror movie trade to puff these scenes up, hoping to make you jump out of your seat or squirm in it, whether that’s with a well-timed jump scare or a character slowly removing a piece of glass from their eyeball.
While this all works conceptually, the execution is sorely lacking. Brightburn drags its story out to an almost infuriating degree. Exposition is dribbled out like a closed off faucet. Scare scenes go on several minutes too long, as if they are just trying to fill time. Characters throughout are needlessly dumb just to keep the mystery going. It’s one of those movies that, if at any point one character had simply stated the obvious, or put two things together, the whole story would have been different. But no.
Instead, Brandon’s mom, Tori, continues to lie about her son even as the evidence of his wrongdoing piles up. Or the police officer takes a little too long to realize the connection between the killings. Or Brandon keeps talking about an attachment to his parents that’s in radical contrast to his actions. Much of the minutia of the story gets incredibly frustrating, especially because the elements it’s playing with are so exciting.
Then, those issues trickle down. For example, if you are frustrated with Brandon’s parents on a story level, it’s hard to sympathize with or pull for them as they discover the truth. And with Brandon’s body count continually rising at the same time, Brightburn is left without a strong point of view. There’s no one to get behind or cheer for. So you end up watching the film as a passive observer instead of a more active participant. Sure, there’s fun to be had in simply watching the story unfold, but without an emotional attachment to the characters, it’s easy for a lot of it to feel inconsequential.
Still, though much of Brightburn’s story is clunky, the payoffs and reveals are rather satisfying. Yarovesky’s penchant for gore is terrifying in its own right and some of the choices characters make, especially late in the film, come close to redeeming their earlier idiocy. Dunn plays Brandon not as straight scary, but more with an “Aw shucks, who me?” attitude, which is almost creepier at times. Banks and Denman play “We found an alien baby in the woods, let’s just pretend we adopted him” parents with everything turned up a notch. Both are well aware they’re making a supervillain horror movie and tailor their performances to the schlock accordingly.
If Gunn had directed Brightburn instead of Yarovesky, you get the sense a more seasoned touch would have made it all work a little better. Alas, Brightburn is a competent movie crafted out of incredible ideas. It’s gross, interesting, scary, and has fascinating mythology, all of which would be so much better if nearly all of it wasn’t delivered in such an obtuse way. Still, this is a story worth telling with characters we’d love to see again. Maybe next time, though, with a bit more care taken as to how the story is presented.
Brightburn opens Thursday night.
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