Brightburn (United States, 2019)

May 24, 2019
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Brightburn Poster

Brightburn can at least boast an interesting premise – not that it does anything with it. The underlying conceit is as simple as it is pregnant with promise: what if a Superman type, having arrived on Earth as an infant in a space capsule, was seduced by the darker side of his nature? What if, instead of fighting for “truth, justice, and the American way,” he fought for domination and cruelty? What if the taunts of bullies warped his soul? Instead of doing something interesting with the idea, however, director David Yarovesky (working from a script by Mark and Brian Gunn, James Gunn’s brothers) wastes little time turning this into a blood-and-gore soaked horror movie.

Brightburn begins like Superman (minus the scenes on Krypton). A childless couple in rural America discovers an infant in a crashed spaceship. For Tori Breyer (Elizabeth Banks) and her husband, Kyle (David Denman, sporting an impressive beard), it’s a dream come true, an answer to prayers. That lasts about 12 years but puberty seems to trigger something ugly in young Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn, channeling Macaulay Culkin from The Good Son). In addition to discovering his superpowers of invulnerability and amazing strength (his training scene involves an abused lawnmower), he loses impulse control. His first violent act is to crush the hand of the school classmate he has been stalking. After that, the body count starts to mount.

The deaths in Brightburn aren’t simple murders. They’re the kinds of intricately designed, lovingly presented acts of sadistic brutality that turned many ‘80s slasher flicks into unwatchable orgies of crimson viscera. In the 2000s, this sort of thing was dubbed “torture porn.” One can make an argument in favor of this ugliness but only when it is used in service of a smart story with sympathetic characters. Brightburn has neither. The only thing dumber than the inhabitants of this small Kansas town is the movie’s screenplay.

The horror movie rulebook decrees that characters must often to stupid things in order to advance the plot. Sometimes, these lapses can be laughed off, like when Jamie Lee Curtis repeatedly tosses aside the knife in Halloween. In Brightburn, however, the level of obliviousness exhibited by pretty much everyone – from the clueless sheriff (Gregory Alan Williams) to Brandon’s parents, who take far too long to figure out that their alien “son” might possess unearthly powers – is beyond humorous. It’s lazy writing that displays equal parts cynicism and contempt for the characters. Brightburn wants us to sympathize with Brandon – the psychopath serial killer – and that’s an unpleasant prospect for even the most jaded movie-goer.

Brightburn’s conclusion is unsatisfying on a number of levels, not the least of which is its open-endedness. Watching this movie, I was reminded of the sinking, queasy feeling I got during one of the Friday the 13th sequels or when I sampled Hostel 2 or one of the later Saw entries. When the end credits roll, it’s hard to decide whether the most appropriate feeling should be disgust, despair, or despondency. This is one of 2019’s worst films and the prominent placement of James Gunn’s name in the marketing material (he’s credited as a producer) won’t do much to buff the filmmaker’s tarnished reputation. It’s a good thing he got the Guardians of the Galaxy 3 gig back before anyone saw this soulless misfire.

Brightburn (United States, 2019)

Director: David Yarovesky
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Meredith Hagner, Matt Jones, Gregory Alan Williams, Emmie Hunter, Becky Wahlstrom
Home Release Date: 2019-08-20
Screenplay: Brian Gunn & Mark Gunn
Cinematography: Michael Dallatorre
Music: Tim Williams
U.S. Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Run Time: 1:30
U.S. Release Date: 2019-05-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity)
Genre: Horror
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1