There are several stylish moments, a few nice scenes, a trio of decent performances and a couple of good ideas in Red Lights. Yet, ultimately, it does not come across as a particularly satisfying effort – on the contrary, it feels like it has not been completely thought through; the leftfield finale coming as quite the surprise because, well, it doesn’t really make much sense, and requires one of the characters to actually talk us through the (il)logic of the twist. This is never a good sign.
However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s go back and take a look at what went right in director Rodrigo “Buried” Cortes’s sophomore US effort, and investigate how, after a promising start, and competent first hour, everything just went downhill.
Margaret Matheson is a psychologist and paranormal investigator who travels the US attempting to debunk purported psychics. With her son brain damaged and on life-support, she is actually desperate to find a case which proves her wrong so that – with some evidence of an afterlife – she can finally let go of her son and pull the plug knowing that he will be going on to a better place. Unfortunately all she finds is money-grabbing fraudsters, playing elaborate tricks on their prey in order to rob them of their fortunes. Her investigative partner is Tom Buckley, a physicist who supposedly has his own reasons for debunking these phony psychics – he says that a psychic once diagnosed his mother with cancer, but nobody would believe her, and, tragically, her mother then died of cancer.
Their practice is small; their funding is almost non-existent; and their work is largely side-lined in favour of their paid employment as professors, yet they are both driven to keep going; compelled to find the truth about ESP and the supernatural, and when a world-renowned psychic – Simon Silver – returns to the limelight after disappearing for over two decades, Matheson’s partner, Buckley, becomes obsessed with taking him down.
Following suit from the likes of The Avengers and Prometheus (although obviously on a far smaller scale), Red Lights also hit European cinemas well in advance of its July 13th US release date. This curious trend – ostensibly to curb internet piracy, but possibly also to test the waters and/or recoup the budget prior to a Stateside release – may indeed have backfired in the case of Red Lights, because I can’t imagine it getting any noteworthy recommendations as a cinema trip must-see. Which is a shame really, because I expected more from Rodrigo Cortes, the man who established himself with native Spanish efforts before making his English-language debut with 2010’s Buried. The Spanish/US-production was far from a perfect film, but it was still a perfect example of how to take a tight budget and shoot a fairly taut movie in basically one claustrophobic setting (it also had one of the few commendable performances from Ryan Reynolds). Undoubtedly fans were keen to see what Cortes would come up with next.
Taking not only directorial duties on Red Lights (which would also be a joint Spanish-US production), but also writing it, it would seem that Cortes’s investment in his second English-language film was far more personal, and he went to great lengths to research into psychics, magicians and cases of ESP. Indeed he spent more than 18 months studying paranormal phenomena; attempting to look at both sides of the coin – the scientific community’s scepticism vs. the purported psychics themselves, and their devoted followers.
The research pays dividends in the authenticity of the first few scenes, and in sporadic elements scattered across the course of the movie – from the opening séance which, rather than leading to a big reveal, is clinically dissected in a later parapsychology class; to the radio frequency search required to tap into the psychic healer’s earpiece at a stage ‘show’; to the spoon-bending trick which is just one of many ideas that Cortes took directly from researching Uri Geller (who was a loose basis for the character of Simon Silver) – the good ideas are exactly that: good. In another movie, they could have made for a great story, but here they at least showcase some initial promise.
The director’s gritty style, too, is quite effective at setting a suitably malevolent mood. Sure, the tension is never ramped up to the extent that he perhaps intended – you won’t be jumping out of your seat at all – but there’s certainly a dark foreboding that hangs over the proceedings.
Acting-wise, we get a trio of solid performances. Sigourney Weaver shows that there’s still some gas in the tank, and that she’s not just going to coast through Avatar sequels until retirement, putting in quite an emotional performance as the lead investigator; and Cillian Murphy (Inception, In Time) tries once again to draw heat in a leading man capacity, veering somewhere between a successfully intelligent characterisation and totally overblown over-acting. Whilst there are some nice moments where he struggles with his purportedly psychic opponents, there are also some silly bits where he shouts and threatens people who – in real life – would have just simply called “Security!” and had him arrested. Still, one can’t blame Murphy entirely for the flaws of the character that he was given to portray – his ‘acting’ is, for the most part, right on the nose.
Rounding out the group is Robert De Niro, undoubtedly one of the greatest actors who ever lived, but also – in more recent times – one of the most unreliable. His film history over the past decade has been pretty appalling: Godsend, Hide and Seek and Stone ranking in as just plain terrible; The Good Shepherd proving to be mundane and tedious; his reteaming with the now equally unreliable Al Pacino (after their career-high Heat) for Righteous Kill being a resounding career-low; and even a few reasonably competent cameos in the likes of Limitless, Killer Elite and Machete coming across as little more than average-to-ineffective, and rarely showing the true talents of this master actor.
At the very least, in Red Lights, De Niro gets a reasonably decent supporting role which doesn’t require any particular showboating or grandstanding, and instead requires him to display an air of disturbing mystery, introspect and unknown power. Playing the world-renowned supposed psychic who disappeared for a couple of decades, only to return for a sold-out tour of ‘performances’, his character is certainly the right side of eccentric and elusive, and his strange talents are suitably disturbing and puzzling to say the least.
Unfortunately, because of the problems in the script itself, and the ensuing ‘failure’ of the film, this will basically remain another fairly wasted-but-decent supporting role for the man, following on from those three aforementioned parts – Limitless, Killer Elite and Machete. It would be fine if he continued to do supporting bits like this, but only if he still proved his worth in a solid leading role once in a while. Ah well, we can but dream. Ironically, some of the most interesting scenes for De Niro’s character are actually performed by a look-a-like, who plays the younger version of his character in TV newsreel footage of his early appearances. His likeness to a young Mean Streets / Raging Bull-era De Niro is striking, and had me wondering whether they had performed some kind of Tron: Legacy – like CG magic to de-age the actor (although, on Cortes’s budget, I suspect that this wasn’t even on the cards).
It’s difficult to see at what point the production went off the rails; at what point things could have worked, or at least been salvaged. There’s certainly a turning-point in the movie, where everything goes from quietly unpredictable to the usual shock-and-awe events you would expect from a psychic horror/thriller, and it’s at this moment where you know that it’s gone off the rails. Whether they previewed an early version before test audiences who thought it was too cerebral and wanted ‘more things exploding’ or whether they always intended it to go in this direction, the shame of it is that there was a reasonably good premise and first act build-up.
I’ve always thought that movies like The Prestige were at their absolute best when it was mysterious practical science that we were investigating (as exemplified by its counterpart The Illusionist), and where the ‘big reveal’ did not require the audience to suspend disbelief for some random paranormal McGuffin. It seems so much cleverer to offer an intricate, well thought-out explanation, rather than a ‘covers-all-bases’ blanket excuse for what has happened, which, in essence, goes against the grain of what these films are all about – grand magicians / highly skilled con artists.
Red Lights packs in so many ‘what the...?’ moments into its last hour that you wonder whether anything could possibly explain them all away, and, of course, when the leftfield ending is arrived at, the audience is left trying to fill in the gaps which is, frankly, nigh on impossible. Perhaps Prometheus has highlighted – and divided – audiences into those prepared to skip over plausible sci-fi in favour of pure spectacle, and those who need their explanations to make some semblance of sense, but Red Lights skirts dangerously close to being incoherent. Whilst this might have been forgiven had there been more on offer than just the story, this kind of production doesn’t have much more going for it, and so if you can’t satisfactorily resolve that one key element, nobody is going to be happy with the end result.
For a film whose leading poster quote is “This Year’s The Sixth Sense”; a film which has had comparisons to Nolan’s The Prestige (amidst others), it’s really not a very good sign at all when you reach the big reveal and have none of the requisite “ah, now it all makes sense” about the preceding 2 hours of your life. Instead you might find yourself wondering what was even happening, or, worse still, not really care either way. Indeed you can tell a film is pretty confusing when at the ‘exciting’ denouement one of the characters repeatedly shouts, “how did you do that?!” and we’re supposed to be thinking the same, when what we are actually thinking is “do what?!”
There’s a good movie to be made about this kind of story – indeed there’s probably still a good Houdini movie waiting to be made out there somewhere – and Red Lights is certainly not the atrocity that was the purporting-to-be-real-when-blatantly-not paranormal shocker, The Fourth Kind, but it’s not really a recommended watch. It’s one of those film you can probably skip at the cinema, and wait for on Blu-ray, where an array of extra features, and hopefully even some elaborate alternate endings (although, unfortunately, they probably won’t rewrite the last hour!) will make this a more satisfying experience. Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, and Robert De Niro make this movie watchable, and Cortes certainly proves that his directorial capabilities are competent, but – especially since he was to blame for the script – he really should have given us a better story, and thus a better film.
2,293 word review written by Cas Harlow.
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