brightburn review

What would happen if Kal-El crashed to Earth from Krypton, and grew up to be Michael Myers instead of Clark Kent/Superman? That’s the exact set-up of Brightburn, a nasty, gory superhero horror film from director David Yarovesky. Yarovesky and screenwriters Mark Gunn and Brian Gunn aren’t reinventing the wheel here. They’re not transcending genre, or attempting to take the superhero film into uncharted territory. Instead, they’re crafting a bleak, brutal subversion of the Superman mythos. And it works.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A childless couple in Kansas discover a spaceship crashed into their farmland. Within the ship is an infant, whom the couple decides to raise as their own. The child looks human, but he grows to possess superhuman abilities. This is, of course, the story of Superman. It’s also the story of Brightburn, right down to the Kansas locale. Indeed, Brightburn owes so much to Superman that I’m surprised Sony Pictures didn’t have to plunk down some cash to Warner Bros. to buy the rights to the famous DC comic book character.

The twist here is that the alien boy in Brightburn doesn’t believe in truth, justice and the American way. Instead, he’s a budding sociopath with superpowers. A ticking time bomb that can quite literally make things explode. The implications are chilling: what if someone with the unstoppable power of Superman embraced evil? Would humanity even stand a chance?

Our Superman-like figure in Brightburn is 11-year-old Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn). When we first meet Brandon, he seems like a genuinely happy kid. He gets along great with his parents, mother Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and father Kyle (David Denman). He’s playful, cheerful, and pretty darn smart. He’s exactly the type of kid any parent would want. But when Brandon’s 12th birthday arrives, his entire demeanor changes. His parents try to shrug it off as puberty at first, but they also are hiding a secret – that Brandon is not of this world. And as Brandon grows more sullen, and more angry, the Breyers – particularly Kyle – begin to grow concerned.

Brightburn wastes no time in unleashing Brandon’s true nature. The young boy discovers his great strength and invulnerability by chance, but he’s quick to use these powers – and more – for nefarious deeds. Almost immediately after discovering he can fly, he zips on over to the bedroom of a classmate he has a crush on. The girl rejects him for being too creepy – a move that eventually leads Brandon to severely injuring her. And when the injured girl’s mother demand Brandon suffer serious consequences, he sets his burning red eyes on her next.

If you’re waiting for a bigger twist here, or some sort of redemptive arc, turn back now. Brightburn isn’t interested in redemption. It just wants to scare the shit out of you, and make you gasp in the process. What starts off seeming like a relatively PG-13 rated affair quickly descends into full-blown hard-R territory, as Brandon’s actions lead to some shockingly gory moments – those of you who can’t handle any sort of eye trauma in movies should probably consider skipping Brightburn.

There’s a nihilistic streak to Brightburn that reminded me of Rob Zombie’s severely flawed, but somewhat interesting remake of Halloween. Much like Zombie’s take on Michael Myers, Brandon is a powerful monster that might have turned out differently if he had just been better understood. But that doesn’t happen. And people die – violently.

Young actor Jackson A. Dunn has to do a lot of heavy lifting here. He’s in virtually every scene, and the film is seen almost entirely through his eyes, give or take a scene or two. While the script requires Dunn to go from happy-go-lucky to full-fledged psycho a bit too swiftly, the actor is more than up for the challenge. He never overplays Brandon’s dark side, and thankfully avoids slipping into generic “creepy kid” mode. Instead, he manages to make the character disturbing with a misplaced smiles and a general indifference that would almost be comical under different situations. Thanks to Dunn’s work here, you get a real sense that Brandon doesn’t believe any of the terrible things he does are wrong, and that makes the character all the more disturbing.

Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, is saddled with a disappointingly underwritten part. She makes the most of it though, leaning into the impassioned aspects of a mother not wanting to believe her son is dangerous. But we never get a real sense of who she is – her entire character exists solely to repeat the same denials over and over again. As a result, the character feels more like a device rather than an individual. Still, the talented Banks manages to achieve some hefty emotional moments as things grow more bleak.

The direction from filmmaker David Yarovesky is what ultimately keeps Brightburn flying high. Yarovesky embraces horror movie tropes – characters appearing suddenly in billowing curtains; creepy whispering; lights going off and turning on suddenly to reveal something scary; plenty of stalking shots – and mixes them with superhero iconography – billowing capes; aerial views; Christ-like figures rising up to the heavens. The blend is unusual but highly effective, like a cocktail that seems relatively light before it quickly gets you drunk. Yarovesky and cinematographer Michael Dallatorre also go gaga for the color red, bathing several shots in a blood red hue that often recalls the original Suspiria. It all makes for a visually arresting experience. The design of Brandon’s “superhero” costume is also a visual treat, particularly the haphazard mask he puts together, featuring shoelaces dangling down the front that recall Cthulhu-like tentacles.

Are audiences prepared for how unrelentingly dark Brightburn is? I have my doubts. The marketing has sold the film as horror, but it’s also slapped James Gunn‘s name everywhere. Gunn is a producer on the film, but anyone expecting something quirky and funny a la his Guardians of the Galaxy films is going to be in for a nasty shock. Nasty is indeed the name of the game here – Brightburn is cold and unflinching, fully committed to unsettling its audience. It’s the type of movie that will make you thank your lucky stars that superheroes don’t really exist.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10

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About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer for /Film. He's contributed to CutPrintFilm, RogerEbert.com, Nerdist, Mashable, and more. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net