I fear that in time, Burning Bright will simply be known as 'that movie where a tiger chases a lady around her house for an hour'. While factually true, that nutshell description does the film a great disservice. Director Carlos Brooks has taken what can only be described as an outlandish premise and turned it into a nail-biting mashup of a home invasion thriller and a stalk-and-slash flick. It just so happens that in this case, the home invader / slasher is a big, orange cat.
As the film opens, we find that Kelly (Briana Evigan) is trapped in more ways than one. Her mother ended her life with sleeping pills, leaving Kelly behind with a younger autistic brother, Tom (Charlie Tahan) and a Stepfather, Johnny (Garret Dillahunt). While Kelly has an opportunity to attend college on a scholarship, that would require leaving Tom behind. Attempting to place him in a special care facility just makes matters worse when Kelly finds out that Johnny used up all the money that had been set aside for Tom. You see, Johnny is trying to start a safari ranch on his land and nothing gets the crowds in the door quite like big, scary cats. That's why he took the logical step of purchasing a Bengal Tiger from a circus performer (Meat Loaf).
After attempting to argue her case with Johnny, Kelly gives up and finally goes to sleep. It's not as if she has anywhere to go, considering a massive hurricane is headed in their direction. While a boarded up house is normally good at keeping critters out, Kelly is about to find out how good it is at keeping them in. She wakes up in the middle of the night only to find that Johnny's newest pet, the tiger, has found its way into the house. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the tiger's acting alone since somebody boarded up the front door after he got inside the house. Did I mention that the tiger hasn't eaten in two weeks?
Although, the identity of the person who unleashed the tiger shouldn't be a mystery at this point, Kelly doesn't have any time to point fingers. She's too busy staying alive with her brother in tow. Her numerous creative attempts to evade the tiger form the rest of the tense narrative. Along the way, Kelly will fashion weapons out of common household items and seek refuge for her and Tom in some surprising locations while the storm rages on outside.
I said at the outset that the film had an outlandish premise and nothing I've said since has really changed that. What grounds the film is its surprising attention to detail. Kelly isn't your average horror movie bimbo. Although she spends much of the movie in her tank top and pajama shorts, even getting completely soaked by the climax, she never seems to be objectified. Credit for this goes to a smart script by Christine Coyle Johnson and Julie Prendiville Roux and a sharp portrayal by Briana Evigan. The film's last hour finds Kelly running around the house with long wordless stretches broken up only by her small interactions with Tom. Throughout this Evigan keeps us anchored by showing Kelly to be an intelligent woman who will protect her own when push comes to shove.
Giving Kelly someone to protect is just as important and this is where Charlie Tahan shines in the role of Tom. Tahan has the unenviable task of taking on a role with a non-existent character arc. Tom exists to remind us of Kelly's dedication to him, even in the face of extreme adversity. With that said, I don't mean to imply that Tahan takes the easy way out. He gives Tom a wounded innocence that exists just behind the layer of regimented behavior borne of his autism. When taken together, Evigan and Tahan created characters that I wanted to see flourish past the end of the film. For a movie of this genre, I consider that a true accomplishment.
With his sophomore directorial effort, Carlos Brooks shows a creative eye for shot composition and a talent for fat-free pacing. At no point in time did I find myself confused by the geography of the house even though Kelly and Tom were constantly on the move. The film also wastes no time in finding its legs. After a brisk 30 minute opening that sets up the relationship between Kelly and Tom, it takes off like a rocket. To be fair, I found the unstoppable and omnipresent nature of the tiger a bit hard to swallow but that was only in retrospect. As long as the beast was on screen, I was fully invested in Kelly and Tom's plight. Thriller accomplished.