Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘Brightburn’ Bathes in Juvenile Nihilism

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David Yarovesky’s Brightburn is a slasher movie plain and simple. It is a film which asks the question that every fourteen-year-old comes to ask eventually, “What if Superman were evil?” Unfortunately, that’s the only question it asks.

It is a question that seems interesting when we are younger. But eventually, as we grow older, the question loses its fascination. Possibly because as we get older we begin to realize what makes Superman so interesting is, “Why is he so good?” 

Tori (Elizabeth Banks) and Kyle Breyer (David Denman) want kids but cannot conceive. Just like Ma and Pa Kent, they are granted a gift from the heavens. Only Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) isn’t an angel. Actually, he’s an average kid until he hits puberty. It’s then that the ship he fell to earth in, which his parents have hidden in the cellar of the family barn, calls to him.

Only when the ship awakens and calls to him, he begins to change. The ship doesn’t just awake his powers, but a hunger to destroy. Using puberty as a metaphor for scary and incomprehensible is a time-honored tradition, both for Hollywood and comic books.

Watching Brightburn, I felt a sort of remote sense of awe in the production value. Yarovesky has a keen sense of mood and knows how to play an audience. He understands pacing and frame composition twenty times better than the average big studio hired gun.

Michael Dallatorre shot the film. He lights Brightburn between romantic fantasy and a chilling nightmare. His use of darkness and light as a way to create tension and dread is, at times, breathtaking. Together with Yarovesky, the duo creates one of the technically superior superhero movies of the last few years.

Brandon stands under the light in such a way as to have a shadow cast across his eye line. Or, blanket he sleeps in is bright red. But Dallatorre only gives us brief glimpses of it, his room shrouded in darkness.

 The weak link is the story—but not really. Brian and Mark Gunn’s script is tight and lean. They are intimately acquainted with the Superman mythos, slyly turning minor details into morbid signposts of foreboding. The two have the unique ability to twist the mundane into the macabre. When Tori and Kyle sneak into Brandon’s room they find pictures of half-naked women under his bed. They are relieved but anxious. He is a growing boy after all. Soon they reach another stack of photos, an anatomical diagram of the inside of a woman’s belly. They are concerned but not nearly concerned as we would be.

The problem I had with Brightburn is its predictability. If the premise of your movie is simply, “Superman-but evil” and all you do is use every plot beat from the actual story then we can start to see where the script is going long before we’re supposed to. You could argue that’s the point.

I’ve talked to more than a few people who wanted to see Brightburn purely because they just want to see him kill people. If that’s all you’re looking for then that’s all you’re getting. I wanted more though.

Maybe its because they used Superman as the mold for Brandon, but Brightburn as a whole bothered me. The audience I saw it with seemed to be enjoying themselves. Indeed, many of them were, literally, on the edge of their seats. If you are a gorehound then the movie offers up a cornucopia of a feast.

But I couldn’t get over the unease of seeing such a drastically boring and mean take. Yarovesky and the Gunns have great fun showing a child with superpowers killing people. Brightburn is a story without a hero. It could be argued that Bank’s Tori is the hero but she spends most of the film defending Brandon. But Brandon isn’t interesting. He’s just a psycho kid who kills people.

We never root for Brandon—or any of the characters for that matter. There is no good Lex Luthor in which to stop Brandon. Of course that might mean a possibility of stumbling upon something interesting.

Banks, Denman, and Dunn all do a fantastic job with what they have. Dunn is particularly effective with just his eyes as he effortlessly switches from angel to devil.

Elizabeth Banks proves, yet again, she is one of the most undervalued actresses working today. Her Tori feels fully realized and her moral dilemma believable. A lesser actress would have had us shouting as she defends her psycho boy.

I like slasher movies. Though I’m not so much fascinated by gore as I used to be. I suppose what bothered me is the film’s cruelty. The cruelty is the point. Neither Yarovesky or the Gunns ever have anything to say about us or the Superman/Brandon character. Like the people I talked to, they just want to see him kill people.

Superman was created by two Jewish men as a way to embody a defiant Jewish spirit against a true and very real horror. Superman was borne from righteous anger. Yet he is often treated as an icon of some bygone innocent and naive era.

Making Superman dark “just because” ignores the history of the character. It is a thought exercise that reveals more about the person proposing it than the character of Superman. The cruelty is the point.

Brightburn is a gruesome little slasher flick. The film has several moments that, bored as I was, had me squirming in my seats. One such moment involves a woman, an exploding fluorescent light, and an eyeball. I’ll say no more. Suffice to say the scene had me looking away and squealing.

I’d be lying if I said the movie was bad, it’s just not my bag. Brightburn disturbed me on a level few films have reached. For good or bad, the film is effective. But it never wants to explore why Superman would go bad. Or discuss what it says about us that we find a killer alien more believable than a benign one.

Brightburn is a better-made product than eighty-five percent of superhero movies. It also left me depressed and despondent. I have been making the argument for years that it’s high time superhero movies break out of their doldrums and play in different, more interesting genres. If nothing else, the film reminds me to be careful what I wish for.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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