Writer/Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Featuring Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Cillian Murphy, Joely Richardson, Toby Young, Elizabeth Olsen
Cortés’ follow-up to Buried is a starry affair, but solid turns from his A-list cast can’t quite rescue the story from sinking under the weight of its over-wrought hypothesis.
Red Lights deals in psychic abilities, specifically those displayed on stage by extrasensory celebrities like John Edward, Sally Morgan and Sylvia Browne. Are they raking in millions thanks to an innate gift, or are they skilled cold readers perpetuating a fraudulent act? Are we able to communicate with the other side, or is talking to the dead merely wishful thinking by the bereaved? Can anyone definitively prove the existence of spirit voices, or, conversely, explain away every single instance of parapsychological activity? This heated debate has been going on at least since the foundation of the American Society for Psychical Research Society in 1885. Although more than a century of scientific investigation suggests that psychic phenomena do not exist, there are still a lot of people out there who want to believe. Red Lights explores why individuals pick a position of belief and stick to it, even when evidence to the contrary mounts up.
The movie starts out firmly on Team Skeptic. Drs. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) head out to investigate a supposedly haunted house. One rapid debunking (and one admonished child) later, they’re back at their beleaguered university department, trying to repair a vital piece of electronic equipment for their next assignment. They fare badly compared to Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones) who’s got more funding than God, thanks to his headline-friendly ESP-experiments. Shackleton would like nothing better than to join forces, but he’s too much of an agnostic for Matheson, who’s determined to disprove, discredit, debunk. It’s easy to understand some of her derision – Shackleton’s confined to card tricks in the lab while she gets to hunt her targets in public. When she and Buckley sneak backstage at a performance conducted by Leonardo Palladino (Argentine star Leonardo Sbaraglia), they search for ‘red lights’, the glaring anomalies or too-neat coincidences that suggest that a scam is going on. They lock onto the radio frequency used by the psychic to communicate with his off-stage partner and stop the show in spectacular style: Palladino’s exposed to his audience as a fraud and carted off to jail.
It turns out that Palladino is just the hors d’oeuvre for the ghostbusting pair. His mentor Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), the most famous stage psychic of all time, is re-emerging from thirty years of retirement, and it seems that he’s the only one who can stop Matheson in her investigative tracks. Is Matheson afraid of Silver himself (there are a couple of unexplained deaths in his past) or is she afraid of the truth his abilities might represent? Buckley can’t understand his boss’s downright refusal to investigate Silver, even though exposing such a high profile target as a fraud would guarantee their department funding for years to come. Buckley investigates without her, and finds himself drawn deep inside Silver’s sinister and manipulative web. Silver declares that these comeback shows will also constitute his farewell, so it’s a race against the clock for Buckley to denounce the blind mindreader before he vanishes into obscurity, millions of dollars richer.
The first half of Red Lights, which plays out as an investigative thriller, is fun, with the suspense of the hunt for truth bolstered by nuanced performances – no surprise given the caliber of actors involved – and some evocative cinematography. Cortés is a great believer in layers of story that remain out of frame, or are merely heard. Weaver’s sharp, sophisticated academic has a vulnerable core, and conveys the sense that her crusade against charlatans is driven by personal doubt. Murphy trails his usual clouds of mystery (at one point Matheson asks Buckley “Where did you come from?” and is never answered) and his ethereal presence within scenes endows even the simplest dialogue with a strange ambiguity. De Niro is on fine form as Silver, hamming it up as the spoon-bending clairvoyant at the center of a business empire, fiercely guarded from too much public scrutiny by his manager, Monica (Joely Richardson). Elizabeth Olsen is wasted in a generic girlfriend role, but Toby Jones is entertaining as Shackleton, the quasi-academic who thinks all his Christmases have come at once when Silver agrees to submit to his lab tests.
Unfortunately Cortés switches tracks halfway through, asking the audience to abandon the expectations they’ve been building up, and to suspend disbelief through a series of narrative sleights of hand. There are several mis-steps, including a long and vicious fight sequence in a bathroom that fails to chime with the rest of the script and makes us watch Cillian’s lovely face get smushed. Cortés tries to retain duality in his story-telling for as long as possible, putting off the moment when he has to declare himself with the skeptics or the believers, but ultimately, the need for narrative closure means he has to pick a side. Depending on your personal inclination towards the paranormal, you’ll find the conclusions of Act Three either thrilling or preposterous.
Red Lights poses some fascinating questions about the nature of belief and incredulity, but some creaky plot points and a fondness for melodrama mean it never quite elevates itself above B-movie status. Cortés spent eighteen months researching stage psychics and their techniques, and the onstage sequences with Palladino and Silver ring eerily true. The psychics’ showmanship seeps into the film-making: sometimes the spectacle is engrossing, sometimes you are all too aware of the man behind the curtain. It’s a lot more thoughtful and stylish than others of its ilk, however, and worth a look if you’re fascinated by paranormal material.