Review: Brightwood Forces a Couple Falling Apart to Keep it Together Long Enough to Escape What’s Haunting Them

As exciting as the promise of a first-time filmmaker’s visual prowess can be, I tend to respond to newcomers who have actual ideas behind their technical achievements. Case in point: writer/director (and editor/cinematographer/sound designer) Dane Elcar’s debut feature Brightwood, which has been making the genre film festival circuit since the tail end of last year and combines science fiction and horror with a relationship drama about a couple attempting to decide whether to salvage their fractured marriage or simply end it. I realize this doesn’t sound like the greatest jumping-off point for scares or a head-scratching, time-loop story, but Elcar and his two-person cast get us there to such a degree that you might require therapy after you see the film…perhaps even couples counseling.

With very little backstory (the way I always seem to prefer my horror), we meet the troubled married couple in question, Jen (Dana Berger) and Dan (Max Woertendyke) while they’re attempting the jog around a pond/lake (they even argue about which it is) the morning after attending a party celebrating Jen’s promotion at work. Apparently, Dan got a little drunk and started hitting on her coworkers, so tensions are high and heads are throbbing. It’s actually somewhat refreshing to watch a film with a squabbling couple in which both parties are equally annoying, both to each other and maybe the audience as well. Whatever relationship history one might bring into Brightwood could influence whose side you end up on, but that hardly matters as the story gets going. Still, Elcar lingers on the couple’s arguments long enough to make sure we understand that the shaky ground they now reside upon makes their future uncertain. Will they simply break up? Will they fight to stay together? Will she ever stop calling him a loser? Or will the strength of their marriage be tested by something unexplainable that calls into question their very sanity?

Talking about what transpires in Brightwood is a risky proposition because almost the entire movie feels like spoiler territory, but I’ll do my best. Perhaps taking a page from Nacho Vigalondo’s 2007 Timecrimes, the movie makes it clear that the path away from the pond/lake has vanished and that no matter what direction they travel through the woods, they end up back at the body of water where they started. They occasionally spot a hooded person at a distance, but never catch a glimpse of the person’s face. For the brief moments when they separate, they reunite with small, subtle changes in their appearance or general vibe, or so they think. The filmmaker does a remarkably effective job making the viewer wonder if these perceived alterations are real or the result of anxiety and growing paranoia. It doesn’t make things better when it becomes clear that the hooded figure is actually coming after them, and the film transforms from low-grade curiosity tale to a sometimes violent survival story. But will Jen and Dan survive together or separately? So many questions…

With complete confidence in his actors selling this wild and sometimes complicated story, Elcar has devised a screenplay that blessedly makes no attempt to explain what is happening and simply deals with his characters attempting to get through it, perhaps even escape whatever it is they seem to be trapped within. But because this couple is falling apart while also trying to keep it together, the film also has unexpected humor, as neither one of them can resist the occasional funny verbal jab (Jen’s seems especially cruel, but again, that might just be my perception). Because the film has been compared to Timecrimes so often, I had a pretty good idea what was going on before it was revealed (to a point); I’m still not sure I could pass a test on Brightwood’s labyrinthian plot, but by the end, I had a fairly clear idea of what had transpired, with absolutely no idea why (again, not a complaint at all). The filmmaker makes full use of tight closeups on his actors as a means of allowing characters to sneak up on each other when this shouldn’t be possible, but again, that in no way ruins the impact of the film as a whole.

Despite the comparisons, I deduced that this movie is not a time-travel movie at all, but something more intriguingly current (at least as far as popular plot devices of recent, more expensive cinema is concerned), and one of the reasons Brightwood works so well is that it explores the depths of its concepts within a micro-budget feature, and it mostly works. Above all other things, the film made me desperate to see what familiar concepts Dane Elcar will deconstruct for us moving forward. Seek this one out.

The film is now available via VOD and home video.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.