Leave it to Guardians of the Galaxy’s James Gunn to produce a tight little thriller like ‘Brightburn‘. Written by James’ brother Mark and cousin Brian, they take the classic origin story of Clark Kent/Superman, and throw it into a spin that would make Quentin Tarantino proud. It’s wicked, graphically violent, and perfectly solid way to spend 96 minutes.
Set primarily on a small farm outside of the fictitious small community of Brightburn, KS, the film opens with Kyle and Tori Breyer (played by David Denman and Elizabeth Banks) trying their best to conceive a child of their own. They’ve been trying for a while and Tori has been hoping for a miracle to happen. A miracle does happen and an object crashes out of the sky and into a nearby stand of trees, presenting the couple with a small baby boy and his spacecraft.
If it sounds like the Kent farm up in Iowa, the parallels are pervasive, from the setting and the kindly couple taking in the infant (which they name Brandon) to raise as their own to the family name on the lonely mailbox alongside the country road.
Jumping forward to Brandon’s 12th birthday, he’s turned out to be exceptionally brilliant (testing in at the top 0.01% for his age level), he’s also been very lucky – he’s never bruised or bled in his entire life (at least as far as either Kyle or Tori can recall). He starts having sleepwalking episodes which are drawing him towards something long hidden in the barn.
He’s been recently turning from a normal boy to something darker, and more concerning. When Tori finds some skimpily clad women’s magazine pages hidden under Brandon’s bed it’s an amusing thought of her son becoming interested in women, but then she finds graphic photos of disemboweling and vivisection. When he is trying to start the lawnmower and pulls too hard, it winds up being flung a hundred yards away. Walking up to retrieve it, he finds the cutting blade still spinning, and moved by inner voices he puts his hand out, and the blades shred to a stop without leaving so much as a bruise on him.
His urges go from willful rebellion to trying to hide his lying about what he’s done, and as he finds out how strong he is and how powerless anyone is to stop him, he, simply gives the barest of smiles.
Rather than a slow manifestation of powers, he pretty much has everything full stop. When a classmate insults him and then tries to help him get up by extending a hand to him, he slowly crushes her hand as she screams. When the school counsellor tries to get him to express his regret, he doesn’t seem to be able to muster the desire to do so, but he does inform her if she does tell his parents or the sheriff about him, things will not go well for her.
She does. It doesn’t, and it goes very graphic very quickly. The least of the violence in Brightburn is watching a 12-year old girl’s hand be slowly folded in half. From there, think Gunn’s earlier Belko Experiment, but then go about two notches more graphic. Nobody dies cleanly or quickly – there’s a lot of slow determination, and even slower bleeding out deaths.
Sure, we’ve seen what we would have taken as a good superhero go evil before, via kryptonite, radiation, or mind control. Here this isn’t because they’re being controlled, it’s because they have basically unlimited power, and are a 12-year old, and he’ll do whatever he wants. If the film lacks, it’s because the Breyers don’t really try to deal with his emotional outbursts early on in a productive way. They seem to go from loving to lashing too quickly. And the story could have gone for a bigger arc. In the end most everything revolves around the farm, and to a lesser extent the school, a nearby diner, and a few excursions to a nearby forest.
It’s fun, but not great, it’s almost disappointing in how quickly the ending comes, and it’s just when things are getting good. But perhaps that’ll just leave us wondering (and looking forward to) what next.
Brightburn opens everywhere on May 24th and is rated R.