Red Lights was a festival darling and a box office flop–which is really very telling: It means the film was intelligent and edgy enough to please an indie audience, but lacked the mass-appeal factor necessary for a successful theater release. Yet it’s easy to see why Summit Entertainment was willing to take a chance on it. It’s got A-List Hollywood Actors for cryin’ out loud! None other than Robert De Niro starring opposite Sigourney Weaver, Queen of Mainstream and Horror Cinema. Add to the cast two of the era’s hottest indie actors, Chillian Murphy (Red Eye, Retreat) and Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Silent House) and this thing looks like it’s got “HIT” written all over it. Nope.
Check out my review after the jump:
Official Synopsis: The skeptical psychologist Dr. Margaret Matheson and her assistant, physicist Tom Buckley, are specialists in disclosing fraudulent paranormal phenomena. When the famous psychic Simon Silver reappears to his public after many years of absence, Tom becomes singularly obsessed in determining whether Silver is a fraud or not.
Red Lights is written and directed by Spanish filmmaker Rodrigo Cortes, who’s debut film Buried also made a splash at all the right festivals. His nationality and the fact that the movie was filmed in Spain and Canada might explain why it failed to find a connection with a mainstream American audience. There’s definitely a European sensibility to Red Lights, the way it concentrates on believable human drama and it’s willingness to let the story play out at a believable pace (in other words, it’s long). It also feel slightly otherworldly; sure everyone is speaking good old American, but the setting feels more historic than even New England. This gives the film a dreamlike quality in the sense that everything is familiar but eerie.
It’s a slightly splintered reality, which actually makes it a likely place to find a character like Simon Silver (De Niro): He’s a media Psychic clearly inspired by Uri Gellar (the 1970’s spoon-bender) but he’s got some of that classic evil De Niro with echoes of Cape Fear, Good Fellas, and even Raging Bull. Combine this with an almost messianic appeal to a legion of cultish followers, and Silver is a compelling character indeed. Compelling and way fucking out there!
Cortes says he wrote the part of Dr. Margaret Matheson with Sigourney Weaver in mind–long even before she official signed on to the project. This explains how Weaver own the role so completely; Cortes created a part that highlights some of Weaver’s best abilities. She’s as cold and confident as you’d expect of the woman who stared down an armada of aliens; the perfect foil to De Niro’s charismatic, larger than life persona. As these characters trade heavily nuanced barbs, Red Lights presents a metaphorical battle (one we’ve seen before) between science and faith, logic and instinct; in this particular case, it’s presented as a war between Psychology and Parapsychology with Weaver and De Niro serving as each army’s General.
Cortes’s movie grapples with the main question at the core of any debate about Psychic Phenomena: Are they real? It’s no secret that the Psychics are met with such skepticism: There are a lot of crooks and liars out there. Still, I’d hypothesize that most Americans today are open minded (and/or superstitious) enough to entertain the possibility that there may be a scientific explanation to these events–one we simply don’t currently understand… well, 50% maybe. Still, it’s enough of a split to warrant a serious debate on the topic, and Red Lights delivers. While the film is unlikely to sway anyone with an inflexible position on the issue, it provides plenty of support to both sides of the conversation. Whether or not Simon Silver is legitimate becomes less consequential than the broader questions Red Lights poses.
So what’s up with the 29% freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes? I mentioned before that it’s a cerebral film–perhaps too much so. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a bedunker face off against believer, but there is an academic seriousness about Red Lights that’s more intense than your average Horror offering. Figuring things out for yourself can be hard if you’re looking for mindless cinematic bubblegum. The film also no doubt suffers from an unexpected death at the mid-point–mainstream audiences are sensitive about shit like that. Unless it’s an art-house crowd, most people aren’t really down with cinematic sucker-punches and open-ended conclusions.
Ultimately, it’s Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Simon Silver that that makes the film so intriguing, and also so problematic. He’s presented as some kind of uber-charismatic John Edwards type, except he’s something else completely–something unique and, unfortunately, kind of ridiculous. We get a throw-away comparison to Chris Angel, but even he isn’t an accurate parallel of Simon who’s more commanding and formal. At the end of the day, it’s just too much to take seriously, and Silver eventually deteriorates into a parody of himself.
Chillian Murphy is the heart and soul of Red Lights and his portrayal of Tom Buckley is top-notch. I was completely willing to invest my emotion and attention to his character’s quest–and it’s a turbulent ride, riddled with subtext and complexity. In a lot of ways, he’s an ideal protagonist, a character we’re willing to stand by even when he’s at his worst. He is also the mystery at film’s center, the personification of an impactful sub-plot.
Red Lights is a great film if, at time, complex and far-fetched. If you’re looking for action or supernatural horror along the lines of The Conjuring, you won’t find it here. But if you’re a fan of believable human drama and some of the more intellectual aspect of Psychic Phenomena, there’s a lot to like here. The ending probably won’t please everybody (as it dangles precariously close to the edge of maudlin melodrama), but it attempts to offer a sense of resolution to a story that’s otherwise a bit too ethereal.
Be on the lookout for a clever nod to The X-Files.
3.5 out of 5 Skull Heads.
|Directed by||Rodrigo Cortés|
|Written by||Rodrigo Cortés|
|Music by||Victor Reyes|
|Editing by||Rodrigo Cortés|