The great thing about independent films is that ingenuity always trumps budget. You can possess a miniscule amount of money, but if you have a cool premise and interesting characters, audiences will happily overlook any rough edges. Brightwood is a perfect example. This is a simple production – just two characters and one outdoor location. Writer/director Dane Elcar uses those limited elements to craft a movie that works as both a horror story and an exploration of an unhappy marriage.
Jen (Dana Berger) and Dan (Max Woertendyke) have been married for, as she puts it, “a stupid amount of time.” We meet them as they’re going for a morning jog. She runs ahead of him, listening to a podcast about divorce on her earbuds as she tries to drown out his attempts at conversation. They decide to make a quick spin around the nearby lake, only to find that the trail keeps bringing them back to the same place. The way out has mysteriously disappeared. Jen and Dan bicker as they look for an escape route. Then they encounter a series of hooded figures who are lurking around. Stuff gets bad for them from there.
Two people jogging around a lake might not sound terribly exciting. Brightwood adds intriguing layers to that core idea, though. Suspense is generated from learning who the hooded people are and gaining insight into where they came from. Elcar nicely makes the spacious outdoor setting feel claustrophobic. Because the characters keep seeing the same spots, we do too, creating a sensation that we’re trapped there with them. Everything builds to an explosive, gory finale that ends on an image that’s somehow tender, ironic, and absolutely blood-curdling at the same time.
The movie earns that ending because its central observation about marital difficulty is shrewd. Getting stuck in a loop is a metaphor for where Jen and Dan are in their relationship. The exact same problems just keep taking them around and around and around, ultimately leading nowhere except toward unhappiness. It’s a form of hell to be stuck in a failing marriage. In this case, the path around the lake is a literal form of hell to represent the interpersonal kind.
Berger and Woertendyke give good performances that make the dynamic between their characters feel authentic. Watching how the couple adapts throughout the situation, where all they have is each other, makes the terror of the third act pay off. Brightwood is admittedly a bit slow in the middle. Where it ends up is anything but slow. The final moments of this imaginative, creepy chiller will have you thinking and shivering simultaneously.
out of four
Brightwood is unrated, but contains strong language and bloody violence. The running time is 1 hour and 24 minutes.