Having fashioned a nail-chewing thriller with little more than Ryan Reynolds and a pine box in 2010‘s Buried, director Rodrigo Cortéz is back with Red Lights, a thriller that steps out into the wider world for an intense glimpse of the paranormal.
Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy play Margaret Matheson and Tom Buckley, a pair of psychologists who specialise in debunking the paranormal. When they’re not teaching their university students about the con tricks of bogus spiritualists, they’re investigating real-world cases of the supernatural with a distinctly cynical eye; both Margaret, the older, bossy one, and Tom, her younger assistant, have their own peculiar reasons for resenting and distrusting anyone who claims to be able to contact the spirit world.
Margaret and Tom, then, are like a pair of reverse ghost busters, which is economically related in Red Lights’ opening séance sequence. A rich couple’s apparently haunted mansion is revealed to be anything but, while a part-time hairdresser who moonlights as a medium is revealed to be just another fraud – Red Lights‘ title, we learn, is a reference to the practice of spotting a spiritualist huckster’s tell-tale tricks.
Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), meanwhile, proves to be a harder subject to pin down. A psychic superstar of Uri Geller’s magnitude in the 70s, Silver hurried into obscurity when a heckler abruptly died of a heart attack during one of his performances. Now, after a long hiatus, Silver’s back for a new run of stage shows in which he appears to be able to perform miracles, including cold reading, psychic surgery and levitation. Does Silver have truly paranormal gifts, or is he another con artist like all the others? Tom’s anxious to investigate further, but Margaret, for some reason, seems strangely afraid of this enigmatic character…
Presumably using paranormal powers of his own, Cortéz has assembled a sterling cast for his latest feature, and they bring some great performances to a thriller that is by turns frightening, funny, and hugely entertaining. As the cynic whose assured disbelief hides a latent fear of the unknown, Weaver turns in her best performance in years as a driven, smart woman who’s simultaneously ironclad and vulnerable.
Cillian Murphy is Weaver’s equal, playing an apparently simple side-kick character with bitter intensity. Toby Jones is typically good value as a college professor whose desire to find proof of the paranormal sometimes leaves flaws in his experiments (something Weaver’s character gently points out in one stand-out scene), while Elizabeth Olsen, Jolie Richardson and Submarine’s Craig Roberts provide ample support in smaller roles.
Robert De Niro, meanwhile, is surprisingly good as Silver. The veteran actor’s had a tendency, of late, to coast through his supporting appearances, and while Red Lights still doesn’t see him firing on all cylinders as he might in a decent Scorsese flick, he adds plenty of gravitas as an enigmatic character who may or may not have extraordinary powers.
Given that Red Lights is so far removed from Rodrigo Cortéz’s last movie, set as it was in one location, with one actor and only one light source for the most part, it’s notable just how confident his filmmaking is here. As director, writer, co-producer and editor, he’s crafted a movie with a distinctive atmosphere that’s vaguely reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s chilly, wonderful adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, or Adrian Lyne’s nightmare 90s chiller, Jacob’s Ladder.
There are moments in Red Lights where the tension reaches extraordinary heights. It’s not frightening in a typical horror movie sense, but it’s exceptionally creepy – just as Cortez wrung huge amounts of drama from a confined location in Buried, so he creates scenes of intense fear and loathing by simply having a homeless person point at a car – it’s filmmaking witchcraft, pure and simple.
As Red Lights’ characters begin to feel their scientific certainty dissolve in the face of the unknown, it’s easy to be carried along with them; in these moments, the glimmers of humour Cortéz laces into the story – the odd nudge at American TV anchors, the occasional sarcastic remark, and one delicious 70s-era De Niro impression – come as a welcome relief.
From its opening titles (which, like the ones that opened Buried, hark back to the design skills of Saul Bass), Red Lights seldom makes a false step for at least 90 minutes. The occasional scene of shouty melodrama aside, Cortez masterfully builds up his paranormal thriller, providing rug-pull moments and a constant sense of ambiguity. Who we can trust in this murky world of would-be psychics, paranormal professors and freak deaths is rarely obvious, and this is surely a sign of a great director at work.
How unfortunate, then, that Red Lights stumbles at the last hurdle, delivering a final act twist that, if not infuriating, fails to match the intrigue of everything that led up to it. Cortez, it seems, wanted to tie the movie off with a killer punch, but it’s one that doesn’t sit at all well with the other 90 minutes he’s constructed.
Nevertheless, there are enough great things in Red Lights to make it worth recommending, in spite of its conclusion – its final destination may be something of a disappointment, but its performances and direction make the journey up to that point a worthwhile one, and it again marks Cortez out as a filmmaker of genuine talent.