I'm closing out the marathon this week by looking at a film released with little fanfare despite an impressive cast. Spanish Director Rodrigo Cortés is known mostly for Buried, the 2010 movie that put Ryan Reynolds inside a very confined space. He wrote and directed this film, which explores the world of people trying to uncover fraud behind supernatural abilities. Despite mostly negative reviews, I was interested enough in the subject matter and talented actors to give it a shot. How bad could a movie be with Robert De Niro playing a long-lost celebrity psychic returning to power? Plus, Cillian Murphy is always interesting on screen, and Sigourney Weaver has the ability to survive even weaker movies. Let's get to the questions before I get trapped in a strange hallucinatory universe!
Red Lights – Directed by Rodrigo Cortés; Starring Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones, and Joely Richardson
So, what's this story about?
Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) and Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) are academics who investigate paranormal activity and try to debunk those claims. They seek out "red lights", which are the key clues that identify where the trickery is happening. When famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement after a 30-year absence, it changes the game. Margaret was an outspoken cynic of his work in their younger days, and she pushes Tom not to investigate Silver. Despite her best efforts, he can't stay away and starts a chain reaction that changes his life forever. Silver left the scene originally after a passionate critic died mysteriously, so there's an aura of danger around his cult-like status. Going after Silver could jeopardize Tom's life and the health of everyone around him.
What are the key themes of this film?
Red Lights is tricky to review because it leads you down a certain path and then dramatically alters course. I won't give away the twists since it's a recent movie, so I'll stick with what we know for most of the story. Tom is obsessed with going after Silver and is facing strange occurrences in his life. He dreams of floating above his own body and has crazy visions involving his nemesis. Birds keep flying into windows near him, and a creepy old woman stares him down while crossing the street. Is Silver causing these events with his powers, or are his devoted followers selling the con game? Margaret doesn't believe in Silver's powers and takes a beating in the press for being a skeptic. Even so, she isn't willing to try and take him down. Her son has been in a coma since he was a child, and she can't escape the feeling Silver was involved. Is it really that important to prove he's a fraud when the costs could be high? Their funding is minimal and few take them seriously, so what do Tom and Margaret have to gain? His reasons are even more ingrained than hers but are mostly subconscious motivations that aren't clear on the surface.
Are the characters believable and fully drawn?
The main issues are in the Cortés script, which treats most of the characters like pawns in the plot. The actors make it work and sell the material, so the flaws aren't fatal. The prime example is Robert De Niro, who must create a mysterious guy out of very little. Even after we realize the extent of his powers, Silver's motivations still aren't very clear. Why did he wait 30 years before returning to the scene? What has drawn him back into the public eye? Elizabeth Olsen also appears as one of Margaret's students and the love interest for Tom. She does a good job and brings weight to Sally, but her impact is pretty limited. Toby Jones continues his trend of appearing in virtually every movie and does his best. It's another case where he makes this guy engaging without much to do. The main reason the story remains interesting is Cillian Murphy, who brings a lot of power to the lead role.
What are some of the most memorable scenes?
Red Lights opens with a strong sequence that shows Margaret and Tom identifying a fraud claiming to connect with ghosts. There's believable chicanery going on, but they have few problems discovering the trick. The explanation is simpler than you might expect and shows just easily victims are conned. The pace picks up once the weirdness starts happening as Tom goes after Silver. There are few answers given until the end, and that solution doesn't truly explain it. Right before the final showdown, Tom sneaks backstage and listens to a monologue from Silver that makes little sense. There's plenty of tension, yet something's missing. Tom is bumbling his way through the investigation, and it's clear he's in way over his head. There are several examples near the end that don't make a lot of sense. They're well-directed but need more explanation to come together.
How’s the direction? Is there an original vision?
Rodrigo Cortés creates a believable atmosphere of dread that only grows as Tom gets closer to the truth. When a main character suddenly dies, it's effective and arrives with little fanfare. While the directing is engaging, he doesn't reach the same level with the writing. Like I mentioned earlier, the characters are limited and don't live up to the material's potential. Cortés builds the momentum and delivers some tense sequences, yet I felt a bit hollow inside after the final shots. The subject matter is interesting and offers plenty of possibilities for an entertaining film. I generally enjoyed watching it, but the awkward moments and abrupt finale hold down its effectiveness.
Looking ahead, does this movie have a chance at making my Top 10 List?
Although it's a memorable film, the inconsistency of Red Lights makes it unlikely to crack my list. I enjoyed the subject and think it's worth checking out, however. I was surprised to note just how few critics gave this movie a passing grade. Even with my reservations about certain parts, there are far worse ways to spend a few hours. If nothing else, it shows De Niro trying something a bit different and delivering a good villain through sheer force of will. While speaking to the enraptured masses in a theater, he owns the stage and makes it easy to understand why they follow him. The audience is looking for anything to believe, and this imposing guy is the most likely candidate to save their souls.
Next week, I'll check out Disney's late-'90s animation and begin with Hercules.