The time loop trope is well-tread, but “Brightwood” paves new ground with a clever, intelligent allegory that’s surprising at every turn.
Many of us have experienced a failed relationship, a blissful union that ended in heartbreak and bitter disappointment. It begins like a dream — idyllic, hopeful, and full of endless potential. But somewhere along the way, everything changes. We lose our way.
What was once beautiful becomes ugly and tainted. You feel trapped and desperate for a way out. And you asked yourself, “How the hell did I end up here?”
That’s the place we meet our toxic couple, Dan (Max Woertendyke) and Jen (Dana Berger).
Brightwood immediately thrust us into the vortex of their unraveling relationship. While out for a morning run, with a struggling Dan lagging far behind Jen, it takes mere seconds for us to realize they don’t enjoy each other’s company and are battling the weight of serious unresolved issues.
Ostensibly, the latest chill in their unhappy union stems from Dan’s problematic behavior at a work party celebrating Jen’s recent promotion, where he drank too much and hit on her co-workers.
But as Dan reluctantly follows an icy Jen into the park for a trail run, it soon becomes clear the magnitude of their problems is much bigger than a single night of questionable behavior. There’s so much friction between them that it’s boiled over into disgust and rage, at least on Jen’s part.
This is slowly revealed as the couple inexplicably find themselves lost in the woods once the trail mysteriously vanishes and strange, unexplained events befall them.
When the couple first enters the park, the pond that marks the beginning of the trail, nestled amidst a canopy of trees, is scenic and selfie-worthy. But once the trail vanishes, and they find themselves trapped in an endless loop that circles around the pond but never goes anywhere, the pond becomes a symbol of their fear, frustration, and despair.
The “No Swimming” sign in front of the pond becomes a signpost heralding their doom and reminding them of the futility of their efforts.
Just like their relationship, something that once seemed beautiful is now, as Dan laments, “stupid and pointless.”
The couple’s mounting stress and frustration only serve to escalate the resentment and pent-up hostility they harbor toward one another, creating a breeding ground for vitriol and pointed personal attacks.
In the midst of their ordeal, exasperated by uncanny events like a perpetual ringing in their ears and unseen forces that seem to bump into them, the nightmare scenario becomes even more treacherous.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a hooded figure appears on their path and begins chasing them as they run in terror.
Soon, they encounter the hooded figure again. This time, they see the figure not as a symbol of danger but of hope, running toward the stranger rather than running away. But their attempts to find answers and a way out of their entrapment are met with avoidance and cruel detachment as the hooded figure silently ignores all pleas for assistance before finally offering a chilling warning and sending the couple spiraling into a hellish new nightmare.
At first, the two leads are highly unlikeable, but that feels intentional as we see them through each other’s eyes, marred by the unhappiness resulting from a soured union.
They’ve been together a long time, but the love, passion, and even friendship have long faded.
As the bickering gives way to shared panic and a desperate fight for a way out, Berger and Woertendyke are absolutely captivating. Their range of emotions feels believable, as does their rocky relationship, crumbling before our eyes. Their performances are gripping, and their fear and anxiety is palpable.
By the very nature of its narrative structure, time loop films are repetitive, often to the point of tedium. But writer-director Dane Elcar, adapting and expanding his own award-winning short film, The Pond (2018), manages to keep every moment of Brightwood feeling fresh and riveting.
Even as the couple regularly retraces their steps and the same scenes get repeated for dramatic tension, Elcar manages to shift the perspective in interesting ways to make every retread feel like a new discovery.
He maintains razor-sharp tension throughout, ensuring the viewer is perfectly content getting lost in the madness.
Elcar, who also worked as his cinematographer, effectively uses his limited resources, cleverly focusing on a single setting and a stripped-down cast while making the smart decision to film entirely in natural sunlight. This ensures the film looks great on a budget and also subverts our expectations, given how rarely we get such a fright in broad daylight.
Brightwood‘s overt metaphor may not be subtle, but it’s perfectly executed.
There’s a potent moment when Dan starts to realize the fruitlessness of their efforts, exclaiming, “It’s endless… we just keep going and going like something is going to change, but it never does.”
As more and more pieces of the twisted puzzle get revealed, you’ll think you know where Elcar is taking you; you don’t.
Like Dan and Jen, the path we’re on does not lead to the destination we’re expecting.
Where we end up is someplace much darker, more poignant, and more unexpectedly moving than we imagined.
At times darkly humorous, harrowing, and heartbreaking, Brightwood cleverly mines the depths of real and relatable horror to put an original spin on the familiar time loop trope.