A good-hearted, childless couple living in America’s heartland discovers a baby that has apparently arrived on Earth from outer space. They naturally adopt the tyke and raise it as their own, only to discover when he grows older that he has amazing superpowers.
No, it’s not a plot description of Superman but rather the premise of a new, twisted horror movie variation on the superhero origin genre, directed by David Yarovesky (The Hive) and produced by James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy). Gory in the extreme, Brightburn is being offered as counterprogramming this holiday weekend, but parents would be well advised not to make the mistake of using it as a second choice if they’re unable to get their kids into sold-out Aladdin screenings.
The title refers to the Kansas town where Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and her husband, Kyle (David Denman, The Office), live on a farm that features a house with the obligatory rocking chairs on the front porch. They consider the baby who’s arrived out of the sky a godsend and name him Brandon. He’s a bright and beautiful little boy, but as is so often the case even with normal human youngsters, it’s when he hits puberty that things begin to go horribly wrong.
At first the strange phenomena could be chalked up to some sort of mental disorder, such as when the now 12-year-old Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) lapses into mysterious trances. But when he accidentally throws a lawnmower 100 yards across a field, Brandon realizes that he’s very different. Or, as he ominously puts it, “I’m special.”
Unfortunately for everyone around him, Brandon is not interested in using his powers for good but rather to wreak havoc with anyone who rubs him the wrong way. He slaughters the family’s chickens in their pen. He crushes the hand of a female classmate after she reacts badly to his showing up unexpectedly in her bedroom. And when the girl’s mother threatens to have him locked up, things don’t end at all well for her. Along the way, Brandon’s increasingly horrified parents discover a stash of disturbingly grisly drawings under his bed that practically scream “young serial killer.”
Clocking in at a very brisk 90 minutes, the film, written by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn (James’ brother and cousin, respectively), doesn’t waste time on nuanced character development or narrative texture. Instead, it goes right for the juicy stuff as Brandon begins laying waste to the local population in gruesomely violent scenes that feature, among other repulsive sights, a shard of glass being slowly removed from a person’s eyeball and a nearly severed jaw. Or, to speak the language of horror fans, the good stuff.
While not exactly original, the premise is certainly effective enough. But Brightburn lacks the visual stylization or wit to elevate it from the realm of the crudely effective B-movie. The filmmakers don’t seem to have a handle on their main character’s powers, which include flying, superhuman strength and deadly laser beams shooting out of his eyes. When he’s truly feeling evil, Brandon dons a mask, which is apparently meant to be scary but just looks silly.
Banks does her usual solid work as the mother determined to protect her son even when the evidence mounts against him, but it’s hard not to think she’s above this sort of material by now. That the pic works to the extent it does is largely thanks to the terrific performance by 16-year-old Dunn in what could be his breakout role. Resembling an adolescent Cillian Murphy, the young actor displays such a riveting, creepy intensity that he manages to sell even the film’s most outlandish moments. Now, that’s truly a superpower.
Production companies: The H Collective, Troll Court Entertainment
Distributors: Screen Gems, Stage 6 Films
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Matt Jones, Meredith Hagner, Becky Wahlstrom, Emmie Hunter, Gret Alan Williams, Annie Humphrey
Director: David Yarovesky
Screenwriters: Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Producers: James Gunn, Kenneth Huang
Executive producers: Nic Crawley, Kent Huang, Simon Hatt, Dan Clifton, Brian Gunn, Mark Gunn
Director of photography: Michael Dallatorre
Production designer: Patrick M. Sullivan, Jr.
Costume designer: Autumn Steed
Editors: Andrew S. Eisen, Peter Gvozdas
Composer: Tim Williams
Casting director: Rich Delia
Rated R, 90 minutes