BrightBurnReviewed By Rob Gonsalves
Posted 09/17/19 06:29:01
(Worth A Look)
“I never said, ‘The superman exists, and he’s American.’ What I said was, ‘God exists, and he’s American.’” – A character in Alan Moore’s WatchmenWell, what if Satan existed and he were American and a superman? The sensationally effective horror movie Brightburn meditates on that. A low-budget production by today’s standards, it’s horrifically violent at times — at least two bits made me gasp and/or avert my eyes, and this ain’t my first time at the gore-movie rodeo. The premise mashes up Superman’s origin story with that of Damien Thorn (of the Omen series). A young couple living on a farm in Kansas are trying for a baby. Soon enough, they find one — in a spaceship that crash-lands in the fields outside. The couple raise him as their own, and when he hits puberty he starts manifesting strange abilities and weird obsessions. Except that the abilities include flight and super-strength, and the obsessions boil down to an unearthly voice instructing him to “take the world.”
The notion of a superpowered being who’s more psycho than hero is not new, of course. Even discounting the throngs of supervillains in comics over the last 81 years, stories like Marshal Law, The One, the above-mentioned Watchmen, and The Boys (recently treated as an Amazon Prime series) have tackled the existential threat of creatures who are physically heightened but morally bankrupt. Brightburn just takes its Juvenalian-satirical approach directly to the source — the genesis of Clark Kent, raised as an unassuming, righteous farm boy who eventually leaves Smallville for Metropolis, where he’s needed more. Here, the Clark is a 12-year-old named Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn), and his parents are Tori (the ubiquitous Elizabeth Banks), an artist, and Kyle (David Denman), who works the land and raises chickens. When the chickens all turn up mutilated one night, a wolf is suspected. But it’s not a wolf.
If you agree to overlook a couple of plot infelicities, such as Brandon leaving a Zorro-style signature on his crimes and the cops somehow not figuring it out until far too late, Brightburn is an intelligently made thriller whose director, David Yarovesky (The Hive), knows how to draw out dread with silence and turn it up to 11 only when necessary. As Brandon starts to slip into homicidal madness — though it seems the spaceship hidden in the barn activates his demons in some way — he makes a creepy costume for himself, although I’m not sure if superheroes even exist as a fictional concept in the movie’s universe, so Brandon probably isn’t emulating any comic-book outfit. (Perhaps the spaceship gives him the costume design.) The violence, when it comes, is startlingly vicious and ugly, toying with the outer limits of an R rating. This movie about an alternate-world Superboy is decidedly not for children.
Is the story a metaphor for how a lonely, smart kid, bullied by peers and rejected by a cute girl, explodes into mass murder of the sort that’s become so grindingly familiar in recent years? Could be, but then stories like this predate our current horrors (and Brandon’s victims are mostly adults, anyway). Its commentary seems pointed more at the superhero-messiah narrative; during the end credits, an actor who turns up often in the work of this film’s producer James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) cameos as a raving conspiracy theorist who gives examples of other weird threats. This seems to promise sequels unfolding in a shared universe with Brightburn, though the film probably didn’t do well enough at the cash registers.
The problem is, this sort of thing is probably only good for one movie. It turns out that it’s roughly as difficult to write about a villain who can do anything as it is about a hero who can do anything. The structure becomes predictable, almost like a slasher film: Someone draws Brandon’s wrath, then spectacularly becomes an ex-someone. Maybe we should just be left to imagine the expansion of the Brightburn-verse. Not everything needs to be a franchise (although I won’t be surprised if an outfit like Dynamite or Avatar, specialists in profanely gory comics, puts out a Brightburn line). Though horror has its own needless-franchise problems, it’s better to think of Brightburn as supernatural, or übernatural, horror.If we’re being honest, the superhero genre — with its costumed gods who could as easily incinerate as save us, due to one frayed wire in their brain — should always have been horror, anyway.
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