Burning Bright

Burning Bright

***1/2

Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

As the opening credits roll for Burning Bright, Carlos Brooks' second feature following 2008's Quid Pro Quo, we see an abstract, churning wall of smoke, accompanied on the soundtrack by the bass rumblings of both thunder and an indistinct animal growl. As the titles end, the camera zooms out and up into a soaring aerial that allows us to look down upon the cloudy mass from which we have just emerged, now instantly recognisable as a hurricane. Through a fluid match cut, the swirling vortex of the tempest turns into the spinning tyre of a circus truck, and so we are taken from the eye of the storm to the eye of the tiger – more particularly, the unmanageably aggressive Bengal tiger locked away in the truck's trailer.

Soon 20-year-old Kelly (Briana Evigan, Step Up 2 The Streets) will be trapped in her own home, stalked by this ravenous beast, as the cyclone rages outside – and what is more, she must keep safe her much younger autistic brother Tom (Charlie Tahan), who has a tendency to scream out loud if he is touched or if he deviates from any of his routines, and to rush without warning into the living room to watch his favourite video, even when there is a man-eating feline on the loose.

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Far from being a spoiler, all this is just the high-concept meat on the film's bone, ensuring that the hide-and-seek tropes conventional to any home invasion thriller are here given a bizarre new twist – or, if you prefer, a different stripe – albeit one that is well advertised in the opening scenes, and even in the film's Blakean title. This tiger in the house, though, is no Snakes On A Plane - for while the film's central premise might sound intrinsically ludicrous, its opening half hour carefully sets all the narrative pieces in place to make the preposterous seem utterly plausible.

Circus man Howie (Meatloaf) reluctantly sells a caged tiger to Kelly's stepdad Johnny (Garret Dillahunt, The Last House On The Left) who wants a 'scary' main attraction for his new safari range and is hardly put off by Howie's warnings of how dangerous, 'evil' even, this particular animal is. Meanwhile, as Kelly tries to have Tom put in a special boarding school so that she can at last take up a repeatedly deferred university scholarship, she discovers that Johnny has drained her account of all the school's fees.

Arriving back with Tom as Johnny's migrant workers are boarding up the house's windows from the outside against the coming tropical storm, Kelly argues with her stepfather about her late mother's intestacy and intentions for Tom. He suggests that she just go to college as planned, and leave Tom with him – but she remains undecided. After Kelly and Tom have gone to bed, a figure reverses the cage up against the house's front door, releases the tiger inside, and boards up all the exits – and so the game of cat and mice begins, in which this household, already fragile from so much dysfunction, is about to be torn apart, room by room.

Much like the sharks in Open Water and the crocodile in Black Water, the tiger here is no CG or animatronic confection, but a living, breathing predator (or, more exactly, three of them playing one), brought into proximity with the actors through seamless compositing. The sense of real bestial menace certainly keeps the pot boiling, but screenwriters Christine Coyle Johnson and Julie Pendiville Roux also create tension of an entirely human kind by focusing on Kelly's ambivalent feelings towards her demanding brother, and turning the decisions that she already has to make about her future into issues of life and death.

"People", as the school's headmistress tells Kelly, "can sacrifice their entire lives taking care of an autistic child. Don't feel guilty if you can't." Here, the animal inside confronts Kelly with a very real fight-or-flight scenario, forcing her into a position where she must at last make a move one way or the other. This killer cat is also a catalyst for moral choice.

The performances are all good, with Evigan letting her character's maternal instincts come gradually to the fore, and Dillahunt never overplaying the villain – and the ending, though a little mawkish, is also well-motivated. All in all, Burning Bright is a taut thriller, as solid and arresting as a 500lb carnivore – and just wait till you see what the cat dragged out…

Reviewed on: 26 Aug 2010
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Director: Carlos Brooks

Writer: Christine Coyle Johnson and Julie Prendiville Roux, from a story by Christine Coyle Johnson, Julie Prendiville Roux and David Higgins

Starring: Briana Evigan, Charlie Tahan, Garret Dillahunt, Meatloaf, Preston Bailey, Mary Rachel Dudley, Peggy Sheffield

Year: 2010

Runtime: 82 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

Festivals:

Frightfest 2010

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