Rating: 14A – Coarse Language, Disturbing Content
Run Time: 113 minutes
“Red Lights” wages a philosophical war between supernatural and natural laws, and begs the question whether the former defies the logic of the latter. Is there something beyond the veil that exceeds our worldly understanding? John Locke believed we must predicate truth on mental perceptions, whereas the later David Hume was a skeptic to the validity of human knowledge and sensory perception. For me, the supernatural is adjacent to the realm of objectivity: both may exist, but they predominate a state outside immanent human existence.
I suspect the protagonists of “Red Lights”, paranormal investigators Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and assistant and physicist Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), would side with Hume. Their job entitles supporting and proving the falseness of supernatural forces. For example, they hide in enshrouded compartments above magician acts and relay information to the mentalist on-stage so he can have the semblance of preternatural knowledge. These scenes make for good moviegoing, because audiences love to become the source of an illusion. Like a projectionist at a movie theatre.
By now you are probably reminded of Christopher Nolan’s 2006 thriller “The Prestige”, where two ambitious magicians, played by Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman, tried to one-up each other with tricks that were brilliant and bold, but totally fixed. “Red Lights” isn’t in the same league as a twisty ceremony of deadly competition, and is instead fixated on whether all mentalists are phonies. “Red Lights” is fascinated and constructed by supernatural elements and scientific reasoning. The movie posits that both could exist, albeit not in harmony.
“Red Lights” is an ensemble piece. There is a myriad of subplots, all which contribute to the film’s central argument on the existence of supernatural powers. The dramatic anchor for all these questions, statements, and side stories is the arrival of famous blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro). The performance is pure showmanship. De Niro makes good use of his natural screen presence, although his character is devoid of depth and complexity. Silver is more of a rapt force, which is just as well considering his métier.
After several years, Silver is back in town for a big final act. He went under the radar after one of his biggest critics mysteriously died. Margaret and Tom are determined to prove this man is a fraud. However, as events unfold there are strong intimations that Silver might be the real McCoy. The film first focuses on Margaret as this anomaly to her associates like Dr. Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones), but then our attention shifts to Tom in the second half when something unexpected happens.
There’s a side bit with Margaret and Tom’s prodigy Sally Owen (“Silent House“‘s Elizabeth Olsen), but her character never really fits. An intimate relationship evolves between her and Tom, but wisely this development takes place off-screen. Furthermore, a nerdy student named Ben (“Submarine“’s Craig Roberts) becomes Tom’s second assistant and helps study footage of paranormal experiments, but this is all for the instrument of the plot. In “Red Lights”, Sally and Ben are about as fruitful as unpaid interns.
The movie was directed by Rodrigo Cortes, who reportedly did a year-and-a-half of research to write the screenplay. He claims “Red Lights” doesn’t represent his own stance on the supernatural and that the film is more of a machine of suspense and paranoia for our entertainment. As such, I will grant that “Red Lights” works as a mystery thriller uncertain about its own subject. That leaves the audience suspended in an unhinging skepticism.
Cortes’s directorial debut, if you recall, was “Buried“. It involved Ryan Reynolds trapped in a box for about 90 minutes. That movie somehow held our attention and raised the stakes in limited space. “Red Lights” is more expansive, but less successful than “Buried”. Cortes is talented at building tension and maintaining a grim and edgy tone, but his sophomore piece is sort of an aborted narrative. It builds but never releases. There is apprehension but no surprise. Revelations without the awe.
Afterwards, I was enticed but not satisfied. This is a film with an engaging journey, but zero destination. The twist at the end carries the toothless impact I felt with M. Night’s dud ”Lady in the Water”: disappointment caused by an empty and unrewarding anticlimax, like an air ball at the free throw line. “Red Lights” thus adds up as a slick thriller with a clinical and red-room look, but its rising and falling action will beget its own skeptics in the audience.