By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Elizabeth Banks, David Denman and Jackson A. Dunn
Directed by David Yarovesky
Written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn
Six years after Zack Snyder offered a psychologically darker take on Superman, his DAWN OF THE DEAD scripter James Gunn is a producer on a film that turns the Man of Steel’s origin story into a full-blown horrorshow. Sadly, BRIGHTBURN is a disappointment as both an alternate take on superheroics and an evil-child thriller—and part of the disappointment is that it’s much more the second than the first.
A key issue is that the movie skips over one of the most potentially dramatic portions of the story, as if attempting to make a mystery out of developments that will be obvious to anyone watching the film. Tori and Kyle Breyer (Elizabeth Banks, from Gunn’s SLiTHER, and David Denman) are a Kansas farm couple who have been vainly trying to conceive a child when a mysterious object plummets out of the night sky and crashes in their backyard. After a brief baby-home-video montage, we jump ahead to just before their son’s 12th birthday, with the Breyers having told everyone—including the boy—that he was traditionally adopted. But how did they deal with taking a clearly alien being into their home? Did they have any doubts or curiosity about his origins? Did either of them (as the film only vaguely hints) believe he was a gift from God? And why do they decide to keep his spacecraft on the premises?
In any case, they’ve named this burgeoning anti-Superman Brandon (a bit of shade thrown at SUPERMAN RETURNS’ Brandon Routh?), and he’s played by Jackson A. Dunn, who can also currently be seen as the young Scott Lang in AVENGERS: ENDGAME. He’s preternaturally intelligent and has never suffered the slightest injury—indications to anyone familiar with the genre that he’s evil, before more obvious signs begin to show. These include insolent, aggressive and eventually violent behavior and a “porn stash” consisting of dissection photos, and some the other characters aren’t privy to, which suggest that that spacecraft, locked in the cellar of the barn, has flipped his villainous On switch. But the film, though ostensibly a character-genesis piece, isn’t really interested in elucidating a background or mythology. It’s all about the symptoms and not the illness, so to speak, as Brandon starts bumping off anyone who crosses him in showily grotesque ways.
On a basic level, BRIGHTBURN occasionally delivers the goods; director David Yarovesky stages a few punchy shocks (with well-wrought gore by Justin Raleigh of Fractured FX) and moments making eerie use of the widescreen frame. Those looking for a no-frills kid-killfest might be satisfied, but the movie sets a higher bar for itself—one that it never attempts to clear. Though the actors are all cast well, Banks and Denman aren’t given the material to play proper arcs of love/protectiveness/fear for their violently errant child; their changes in behavior toward him feel motivated more by plot requirements than natural character development. Nor does Dunn, who certainly has the right look, have much of an opportunity to show Brandon wrestling with his dark side, which would have added some drama to his descent. A subplot involving Brandon and pretty classmate Caitlyn (Emmie Hunter) promises to add more shading to his story, but it only lasts long enough to get her mom Erika (Becky Wahlstrom) on his bad side, at which point the movie forgets about Caitlyn altogether.
BRIGHTBURN is more concerned with setting up its human bowling pins and knocking them down, which renders a good deal of it predictable even if you haven’t seen the second trailer, which gives away almost all the key setpieces (but then, if so much of a movie can be spoiled in under three minutes, that indicates a problem with the film as well). It is, in effect, a slasher movie replacing conventional weapons with digital effects, rather than a successful subversion of superpower sagas on the order of UNBREAKABLE or CHRONICLE. The film’s concluding sequence (featuring a fun cameo by a regular member of the Gunn acting stable) only reinforces the notion that the events of BRIGHTBURN should have been just the first act of a broader and more complex story.