There are some things better left unknown. Like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein warned of “how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge”, there are times in life when ignorance is truly bliss. One of those questions Red Lights goes after is that of paranormal “powers” and the specter of an after life. If we could be certain either existed, would it be in our best interest to know? Even Dracula tells “there are far worse things awaiting man than death.”
Psychologist and professor Margret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) spend their time researching alleged supernatural powers and driving to various locales to debunk them. Ghosts, ESP, alien abduction, Margret is skeptical of all of it. She lives by science and the code of Occam’s Razor that states the most simple explanation is generally the correct one. When it comes to skepticism, it’s hard to picture anyone being more critical of a subject than Margret is of the paranormal. She teaches a college class that gives students a peek behind the curtain to show exactly how these magic tricks of astrologists, psychics, and the like work. Her department is underfunded, and rivaled by a one with an opposite agenda lead by Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones).
Things take an exciting turn when renowned psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) resurfaces after 30 years of seclusion outside of society after one of his detractors died under mysterious circumstances. Buckley sees this as a perfect opportunity to demystify a phony and give the department the recognition it deserves, while Margret warns him that Silver is dangerous and not worth the cost it will take to bring him down. The cat and mouse game that ensues between Silver and Buckley is one that’s a lot of fun when things get rolling. The obsession that Buckley has to bring down Silver’s empire is not unlike that of a police detective desperately searching for the answers to a murder. The only problem is, what if Silver isn’t a phony?
One of the most interesting aspects of Red Lights is that it doesn’t try to be smarter than the audience. The story comes from the perspective of skeptics and those who can appreciate how ludicrous the idea of paranormal powers can be. Writer/director Rodrigo Cortés is well aware of the unbelievability of the esoteric mystics who claim to have abilities beyond that of a mere human. However, the story takes the road of skeptic to believer instead of the opposite route that’s all too familiar with these kind of films. Red Lights lets the audience decide if what they see is real or smoke and mirrors.
At least, for the first hour it does.
For some reason, the script abandons all the rules it set-up in the first hour and sinks deep into reliable old genre tricks that many movies have done better. As a viewer, I can’t help but feel insulted that a fraudulent third act was my reward for investing nearly two hours in this story. It’s more than a little rough around the edges, and the only phony thing here is the last 45 minutes of this script.
Cillian Murphy is crushing his typecast as the uber weirdo and permanently breaking out into a more interesting role with Red Lights. Oh wait, no he’s not. He’s still that enigmatic oddball he is in every role that requires him to show some sort of mystery. Likeable? If you’re into the potential serial killer type. De Niro is the De Niro of the 2000’s, which is over the top, but still serviceable. Come on, he’s still De Niro. There are plenty of scenes where he’s giving incredibly powerful speeches and babbling about god knows what, but the material is so silly it would make John Edward cringe. With a lesser actor, this would be dangerously close to parody.
It’s not all rotten, because the direction is terrific and the sense of foreboding built up can make even the most seasoned vets take notice. The use of shadows to confine the audience is exceptional. Detractors can critique his storytelling ability all they want, but there’s no doubt that Rodrigo Cortés can direct. You may have caught Cortés’ last flick Buried, and with Red Lights he shows what he can do with a little more space. This is on par with any M. Night Shyamalan movie, so if that’s your thing, you’ll have a grand ole’ time. For skeptical viewers, it’s another “what a twist!” thriller that doesn’t have a good enough one to recommend.
*Red Lights hits DVD and Blu-ray on October 2nd. Click here to check out a trailer.*