There a single shot in Burning Bright that can effectively represent the surreal charm of the entire flick: After hearing a noise downstairs, our main protag, Kelly, decides to see if her ne'er-do-well stepfather has returned and finds, to her great shock, that a large tiger is roaming through her home; specifically, the tiger - played variously by veteran mammals Katie, Schicka, and Kismet - is walking calmly between the absurdly ornate dining room and the kitchen, almost bored but with a hint of curiosity, as if it hopes, but doubts, that there's leftover chow mein in the fridge. It's a bizarre image that's almost comical, and all the more so because Carlos Brooks (who helmed the equally weird Quid Pro Quo: a drama about disability fetishists) shoots the flick with a completely straight face.
That shot's the flicks touchstone moment. Whenever the flick is about a young woman and a tiger trapped in a small space and the consequences that logically follow, the film shines. Whenever it gets dragged into backstory or a tangential subplot, the film's brilliance gets quickly smothered in narrative sludge.
And, sadly, there's quite a bit of subplot. The entire excuse for why the tiger is trapped within the house, for example, goes from being the dumb plan of a not particularly bright would-be murderer into a long, conspiratorial dumb plot concocted by a not particularly bright would-be murderer. This wouldn't be so tedious if Brooks allowed his characters the time to reflect on just how boneheaded the murder-by-Panthera tigris tigris concept is. In fact, it would be interesting to reflect on the fact that even a dumb murder plot can off you. But the Brooks's larger, and mostly effective, commitment to playing this thing like its not weird wouldn't allow us those self-reflective laughs.
Another important subplot, this one revolving around the autism of Tom, Kelly's dramatic-tension-machine of a little brother. Tom developed autism after receiving a vaccine against script research, consequently he acts less like an autistic person and more like somebody suffering from PTSD. He gets more or less withdrawn depending on whether or not his sister an he have just had a heart to heart about their mother's passing. Notably, the film builds to a psychological breakthrough where Tom, apparently having come to grips with some aspect of his grief, seems to get a little bit less autistic. Somehow.
Worse, his aversion to touching and general space cadetishness comes and goes as the plot demands it. Need to up the odds of the tiger finding Kelly and Tom? No problem, just have Tom freak out and start shouting about being touched. Are Kelly and Tom somewhere relatively safe, somewhere they could probably hole up and wait this thing out? No problem, just have Tom quietly and inexplicably walk off. Tom's "autism" feels too obviously like what it really is, a narrative device for the filmmakers to repeated draw Kelly, who is otherwise drawn too smartly to constantly be throwing herself into danger, into near suicidal situations. He's the puppet string and it gets tiresome watching Kelly get yanked around.
These problems pad out and somewhat muffle what is otherwise an ingeniously strange and simple plot: woman versus tiger. Kelly, one of the more likable heroines of late, is resourceful and resilient without lapsing into post-Buffyish silliness (it is perhaps worth noting that she's the creation of two female screenwriters). Kelly is relentless in her struggle to survive and simply watching her refuse to quit is all the drama this film needed. While its a shame that so much of the energy generated by this plot motor is spent dragging around nonstarter plot elements, there's still more than enough force here to create a tremendous thrill ride.
Burning Bright seems, at times, to be a surreal spoof of the unremittingly nihilistic Inside. Which, honestly, is a great idea. And, for the most part, Burning Bright delivers the goods.
Plus, beaucoup extra points for actually correctly pronouncing "symmetry" in the Blake poem that lends the flick its title.