Rodrigo Cortés’s last film as writer and director was the expertly constructed Buried (2010), which took place entirely in a coffin housing Ryan Reynolds. It made ingenious use of the enclosed space and showcased an outstanding lead performance. For his follow-up, Red Lights, he’s gone much, much bigger.
Dr Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) assists Dr Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) in proving that people who claim to have paranormal gifts are frauds. When the world-famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement, Tom can’t understand why Margaret is keeping her distance. As he gets closer, however, he realises that Silver’s powers present a very real threat.
Red Lights begins confidently on familiar territory with Weaver’s hardened sceptic and Murphy’s slightly less dour assistant. They are the grim academics (complete with budgetary concerns and knackered equipment) set up against the more flamboyant believers, embodied by De Niro’s blind but all-seeing Svengali. The contrast between the flash of the show business and classroom-bound world academia serves the film well during its first half, but as it progresses and Murphy is moved to centre stage, the plot developments become increasingly ridiculous.
Cortés has no intention of toning down the visual fireworks just because he’s no longer confined to a wooden box. There’s a manic, high-pitched energy to the camerawork and editing that drives Red Lights through its two hour running time and the increasingly precarious high-wire narrative.
The film is all about misdirection but, with the increasingly outlandish red herrings flying thick and fast, Red Lights struggles to stay on the right side of silly. But Cortés is committed to his story and is helped by some solid performances from his cast. Murphy is restrained and focused, De Niro wisely underplays a character that could tip into outrageousness, and there’s another good turn from the underused Elizabeth Olsen. The clear standout is Weaver, who steals the show with a moving performance as the weary realist.
While the second half of Red Lights is outrageous and will upset many with its choices, it is stylish, confident, and it entertains more than it disappoints. It’s a well-acted, visually impressive, and ultimately poignant film that doesn’t fly off the rails but doggedly clings to them even as they go in an audience-splitting direction. Go with it and you’ll find it more rewarding, ambitious, and accomplished than the bulk of recent American genre outings.