Directed by Rodrigo Cortés
Distributed by Millennium Entertainment
Back in 2010, director Rodrigo Cortés brought us Buried, an unsettling, claustrophobic thriller with an utterly devastating finale. Featuring Ryan Reynolds as a man trapped deep underground in an inescapable coffin, the film utilized only the one location and did so to magnificent effect, creating one of the more intense “single room” thrillers I’ve ever seen (hell, there was even an action scene inside of the coffin). Now, director Cortés has given us Red Lights, a movie with a much larger scope, and a bit less success, than his previous effort.
Lights opens with Margaret Matheson and Tom Buckley (Weaver and Murphy, both fantastic as always), two university researchers who professionally debunk all manner of paranormal phenomena – including fake hauntings, dodgy faith healers, and phony magicians. The two work well enough as a team, until two developments threaten their partnership: the introduction of pretty young college student Sally (Olsen), who catches Buckley’s eye, and the return of long-retired master illusionist Simon Silver (De Niro), who disappeared from the public eye in the 70s after an outspoken critic dropped dead at Silver’s final performance.
Against Matheson’s wishes, Buckley proceeds to investigate Silver, which directly precedes numerous (supernatural?) events that threaten the work and lives of both Buckley and Matheson. The movie becomes truly eerie at this point, as all manner of paranormal hell rains down onto the lives of those who seek to reveal Silver as a fraud. Or is that what’s happening at all? Are the strange events simple coincidences, or the machinations of a truly powerful being who isn’t happy with those who challenge his abilities? The movie plays coy throughout, refusing to fully tip its hat as to whether or not the strange occurrences are the work of a magician, or a skilled illusionist.
And then…then there’s the final act. Just as the tension builds to a fever pitch, the air is let out of the entire thing by the film’s disappointing denouement. Don’t get me wrong, the twist (of course there’s a twist) is genuinely surprising, and even satisfying to a degree. Unfortunately, it’s dealt with in the most tepid way possible. The inevitable showdown that we get with Silver and Buckley is a letdown, failing to pack the punch the movie had promised throughout its duration. And a last minute montage explaining the film’s final revelation goes on for a bit too long, and doesn’t give its audience nearly enough credit as it overexplains the twist and its place in the preceding story.
The cast here is beyond reproach, however. Weaver is just wonderful, Murphy makes for a compellingly damaged hero (shame he doesn’t get to lead films more often), and De Niro is better here than he has been in years, acting without the comfortable tricks we all know him for. His Silver is a fascinating, elusive villain who is quite frightening throughout the bulk of Lights’s running time.
Unfortunately, both Toby Jones and Elizabeth Olsen are mostly wasted. Jones is little more than a plot device, though he’s great whenever he’s onscreen. And Olsen, wonderful in Martha Marcy May Marlene and the otherwise terrible Silent House, is sadly given little to do here than to look pretty and advance the plot (she does both admirably).
Millenium has granted Red Lights a nice enough disc. The image is really fantastic, with razor clarity and rich, deep blacks that do cinematographer Xavi Giménez’s work justice. The 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track is superb, as it perfectly balances the occasionally soft dialogue with the more chaotic moments.
The bonus features section is hardly extensive, though it isn’t bare bones, either. We get about twelve minutes of cast interviews, with Weaver, Murphy, De Niro, and Olsen discussing the film’s script, characters, working with Cortés, and their beliefs (or lack thereof) in the paranormal. Cortés himself is the focus of the “Director’s Interview” portion, which is about a six-minute sitdown with the talented filmmaker. A brief ten-minute making-of reuses bits from the previous interviews, while the behind-the-scenes section is less than two minutes (featuring three clips that capture a few moments of shooting).
Overall, my issues with the film aside, Red Lights is one of the more interesting low-key thrillers I’ve seen in a while. The premise is fairly original, the cast is flawless, and the direction is (mostly) taut. If only the film’s finale had equaled its setup, I’d likely be hailing this as one of the best of the year. Instead I have to conclude that, even though it’s ultimately unsatisfying, Red Lights is still more than worth a look.
3 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5