You know the story. Alien baby is sent to Earth. His ship crashes in a Kansas field, where a nice couple finds him and raises him as their own son. This baby starts displaying special powers when he gets a little older, though. Eventually, he grows into a noble man who uses those powers to fight crime. That, of course, is the origin of Superman. The story is turned on its ear in Brightburn, an impressively bleak horror film produced by James Gunn, written by his brother Mark and his cousin Brian, and directed by David Yarovesky.
Elizabeth Banks and David Denman are Tori and Kyle Breyer. Their son Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn) arrived on some kind of spacecraft, Kal-El-style. Having dealt with fertility problems, they viewed the baby as a literal gift that fell from the sky. Tori is particularly enmeshed with Brandon. Around the time of his 12th birthday, he begins displaying some strange sleepwalking behaviors that lead him to the trap door in the barn, under which his vessel rests.
It gets worse. Whenever something angers him, Brandon tends to use one of his newly-discovered powers – flying, shooting lasers out of his eyes, etc. – to hurt the person who upset him. Kyle quickly surmises that something is very wrong, but Tori refuses to acknowledge that her sweet little boy might be inherently evil.
Flipping the Superman myth is a dynamite hook for a horror movie. Brightburn uses it to deliver some nerve-rattling suspense. Brandon is unrepentant when he's angry, a quality Dunn registers with admirable skill. (Finding a child actor who can be scary is rare.) The film does not shy away from the violent, gory repercussions of his actions. I'm an old pro at handling such things onscreen, but one moment involving a fluorescent light bulb made me gasp, cringe, squirm, and recoil simultaneously.
A nihilistic streak runs throughout Brightburn, which might be its best quality, depending on your taste for nihilism. A lot of major studio horror movies these days pull their punches. They go dark, just not too dark. They avoid showing things that anyone might find truly bothersome. Not this one. It repeatedly takes that extra step, which is exactly the right approach for the material. During one scene between Kyle and Brandon, I thought there was no way one of those characters was going to do a certain thing. Then that thing happened. Horror of this sort fundamentally should make the viewer uncomfortable, so Brightburn gets credit for a willingness to go for broke.
Supporting the scares are really good performances. The vastly underrated David Denman is excellent, giving Kyle the kind of protective quality many men have. When it becomes clear Brandon is a problem, he wants to solve that problem. Denman brings alive how Kyle divorces himself from his feelings. Elizabeth Banks, meanwhile, is superb doing the exact opposite. She gives Brightburn an emotional center, making us feel how desperate Tori is to disbelieve the mounting evidence against her child. In spots, her work might leave you feeling unexpectedly choked up.
The main flaw with the movie is that it could use a lot more of everything – more scenes depicting the Breyers' discovery of baby Brandon, more scenes detailing the relationship between Kyle and Tori, and more moments exploring Tori's codependence with her son. Running 86 minutes before end credits, Brightburn feels a small bit choppy at times, as though some of the connective tissue has been left on the cutting room floor.
With more of those elements, the film could have been a great modern horror flick. It remains a good one, however. Kudos to Yarovesky and the Gunns for ending Brightburn precisely as it should, too. The implications of the last scene leave you a little shaken and drive the final nail into the coffin of the movie's slaying of the Superman legend.
out of four
Brightburn is rated R for horror violence/bloody images, and language. The running time is 1 hour and 31 minutes.