‘Brightburn:’ Bad seed from another planet
Of the ongoing slew of superhero movies, Brightburn puts a nasty spin on the cycle by introducing a superhero bent on conquest. Young Brandon Breyer (Jackson A. Dunn) looks like your average 12-year-old boy … but looks can most certainly be deceiving.
For one thing, Brandon’s not from around here. He came to Earth during a meteor shower and was discovered by farm couple Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle (David Denham), who had been desperately trying to conceive a child. Brandon’s arrival seemed to have been the answer to their prayers. But, again, looks can be deceiving.
As per the superhero canon, Brandon comes from another world. He’s got superpowers. He even lands in Kansas – essentially the heartland of America. (The title Brightburn refers – initially – to the county where the story is set.)
But Brandon is not here to help. He’s here to harm. He’s not a benevolent visitor, but a malevolent one, and only now is he beginning to show his true, nefarious colors.
The film was written by executive producers Brian and Mark Gunn, Brian being the brother and Mark the cousin of producer James Gunn, the director of the Guardians of the Galaxy films who weathered a firestorm of controversy regarding some off-color and inflammatory tweets that resulted in his being dismissed from the franchise, only to be rehired this past March, much to the relief of fans but to lingering resentment from some quarters.
In any event, the creators of the film have considerable familiarity with the superhero genre and clearly revel in overturning some of the expectations that come with it. It may be an overstatement to describe the dialogue as “witty,” but it’s certainly smart – and sometimes extremely (and intentionally) funny. Some of the influences here are fairly obvious: Stephen King (particularly Carrie and Firestarter), M. Night Shyamalan, and even H.P. Lovecraft.
Brightburn boasts most of the expected superhero fantasy trappings, but the horror elements are very much in evidence, and some of the death scenes are gory enough to rattle even stout devotees.
Once Brandon begins to exercise his powers, he goes so far to fashion his own costume (admittedly not very elaborate) and even his own logo. But wherever this symbol appears, it’s at a scene of carnage and destruction. He’s leaving his mark, and he wants everyone to know it. As he casually tells his aunt (Meredith Hagner), who also happens to be the school guidance counselor, he doesn’t have a complex about being adopted because he knows he’s superior. She finds this worrisome, but it won’t be long before she has other things to worry about.
At the core of the story is the disintegration of the family unit, albeit conveyed within a supernatural context. Tori and Kyle have raised Brandon with unconditional love, yet it’s not enough to overcome the inherent evil within him.
Denham and particularly Banks bring such conviction to their roles that it’s easy to empathize with them when they make bad decisions, even when confronted with the mounting evidence that all is not well with Brandon. The love they have for the boy compels them to overlook, if only for a time, what is transpiring before them. What they don’t realize is that time is running out.
All told, the performances in Brightburn are sturdy down the line. Emmie Hunter is appealing as Brandon’s classmate crush, and Gregory Alan Williams, as the local sheriff, isn’t the prototypical buffoon. He knows something’s amiss, although that doesn’t necessarily spare him from the usual fate of horror-movie cops.
Where the film really scores is in Dunn’s pivotal turn as Brandon. He’s playing every parent’s nightmare, but his subdued, even sympathetic performance is the quintessential portrait of the banality of evil. He’s menacing without ever taking it too far. The adolescent angst he conveys when he asks his mother, “Who am I?” is something many, if not all, of us can identify with – no matter what planet we’re from. He plays the role with such quiet confidence and has no difficulty holding his own with more experienced co-stars. He’s simply terrific. This young star truly is the hero of Brightburn.
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.