13 July 2012
By Less Lee Moore
At its most basic level, Red Lights is about two paranormal investigators who debunk cases of alleged psychic phenomena. Yet what the movie is really about is something more: Faith, and whether or not that faith can be shaken.
Sigourney Weaver plays Dr. Margaret Matheson, a psychologist who's built her career on not just shaking, but also shattering, the faith of those who believe in the paranormal or supernatural. Cillian Murphy is her assistant, Tom Buckley, a physicist who in Matheson's view is brilliant enough to be doing something more with his life than helping her. Early on in the film, Matheson asks Buckley why he stays with her. He doesn't answer. Finding out the answer is part of what makes Red Lights so engaging.
Red Lights begins like a documentary, straightforward and serious, yet fascinating because of its realism. When world renowned psychic Simon Silver, portrayed by Robert De Niro, announces the end of his retirement with a series of public appearances, things get a little weird, relatively speaking.
Although the trailer for the movie might suggest otherwise, the most accurate observation about of Red Lights came from an audience member at the recent Toronto screening: it feels like a 1970s political thriller. Think of All The President's Men, but instead of focusing on the political, Red Lights focuses on the paranormal.
Weaver is perfect as Matheson. With her commanding presence and stern, iconic voice, it's no wonder Buckley is so attached to her. As for Cillian Murphy, he (once again) skillfully plays someone who is in way over his head. Rather than do nothing out of sheer panic, however, he goes a little crazy (something else he's good at doing). As Simon Silver, Robert De Niro is a bit of a loose cannon but he manages to be just creepily over-the-top enough to convince us that something's not right with him.
Visually, in terms of its color palette—beautifully realized through production design and art direction (and Matheson's behemoth gas guzzler)—Red Lights does feel like it's from another era, or perhaps a well-crafted parallel universe. You can thank cinematographer Xavi Giménez (who worked on The Machinist) for that, too. Director Rodrigo Corté—who wrote, directed, and edited the film—has a strikingly clear vision of not only the story but also the way he wants to tell it. Like Corté's previous (and superb) film Buried, Red Lights is a story about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. But the film also bears the influence of past films like The Asphyx or Altered States, without the morbid qualities of the former or the eccentric Ken Russell-isms of the latter.
Red Lights isn't a horror movie but it's not science fiction, either. It's a fantastic supernatural thriller, which is something we don't see much of these days. In its anachronistic manner, Red Lights demands an audience that is not passive. Such ambiguities have already prompted critical backlash (whining) on the blogosphere. People have and will continue to discuss "the twist." Yet this isn't an M. Night Shyamalan movie. The mysteries are there, but it's up to you whether or not you choose to solve them, or even look for them in the first place.
Perhaps concerned that Red Lights will continue to receive the same criticisms as Inception or Prometheus, both Cortés and Murphy have continuously and adamantly resisted pigeonholing the film or even offering answers to the questions it conjures. Both insist that audiences should go into the theater with no expectations but with an open mind.
Audiences of the last decade have been conditioned to accept big budget action movies with flashes of sci-fi or horror, so they don't seem to know how to parse something like Red Lights, Prometheus, or Inception. One suspects that the current critical climate will not appreciate Red Lights for what it is and what it is not. This is a shame, but I believe that cinematic history will be kinder to Red Lights. Those who are looking for something challenging and unique will find it in this movie.
Red Lights opens in North American theaters today.