Review by Erin M. Brady
When you are in a failing relationship, it can often feel like you’re running in circles trying to figure out how to salvage it. There comes a point, though, where you must wonder if simply giving up is the better option after you’ve exhausted all your options. This breaking point is where Dane Elcar immediately drops audiences into Brightwood, his crafty and promising feature debut.
Dan (Max Woertendyke) and Jen (Dana Berger) are a couple on the rocks. One of them has succumbed to toxic habits making them a shell of who they once were, while the other has lost so much trust that they wish the other would die. After years of unresolved tension culminating in an unseen work party incident, the couple attempts to hash things out on a morning jog. However, what starts as the duo losing their direction turns into something much more sinister when they encounter all-too-familiar hooded killers in their wake. While explaining further would involve diving deep into spoiler territory, it’s a cleverly constructed mystery that only gets bleaker as it unravels.
What makes this bleakness so bearable, however, is the well-constructed conflict between Dan and Jen. Woertendyke and Berger confidently sell their roles to an appropriately uncomfortable degree, making some of their confrontations feel like intimate conversations you shouldn’t be privy to. Even if the situation is implausible, the film's core is grounded in a palpable reality. From the very beginning, it is clear that Dan and Jen harbor deep resentment for each other, but in a way that is carried as more sad than schlocky. When they finally confront mid-film to discuss their failing marriage, there is a legitimate weight hanging over them that feels like it’ll crash at any moment, and many times, it does. Some of this weight is lessened by some hit-or-miss comedic moments, but even the comedy feels like it is clinging onto itself in an attempt to not fall into despair.
Brightwood was not just Elcar’s debut. It is an adaptation of his 2018 short film The Pond, which follows a similar plot in a more condensed format. While keeping the entirety of a feature-length film might sound tedious, the way Elcar shoots the surroundings makes it feel more expansive than one might expect. The natural lighting makes each scene feel both dangerously familiar and uncomfortably unfamiliar at the same time, and while some segments shot on a Steadicam don’t always work, they help make viewers feel deeply uneasy.
This feeling of setting uneasiness combines well with the discomforting dread felt between the two leads, making for a surprisingly compelling watch. Sure, the on-screen brutality is largely cut away, and some of the few gore effects are a bit cheap looking. However, Brightwood’s horror is a philosophical kind that will stick with you once the credits stop rolling. There is a lot in the film that is intentionally kept vague due to a major thematic spoiler revealed halfway through, but there is one thing Elcar does make clear: if you love someone, you have to fight for them.
Brightwood hits VOD on August 22.