Written and directed by Rodrigo Cortes
USA / Spain, 2012
There is a period during Rodrigo Cortes’ (Buried) new film Red Lights when it appears that it will be, if not of high quality, at least mildly entertaining. This period comes at the beginning, when Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy are introduced as paranormal investigators who specialize in exposing pranksters and frauds. It seems that the film will be a detective thriller, with Murphy playing Watson to Weaver’s Holmes, building to a showdown with famed psychic Robert de Niro.
About a half-hour in, the warts begin to show. De Niro’s character enjoys a level of fame that no psychic in history has ever had (and this in a film which name-checks Criss Angel for the sake of a cheap laugh). Weaver’s mildly awkward appearance on a talking-head TV show so cheap-looking that it seems to be a Saturday Night Live sketch is inexplicably front-page news. At this point it becomes clear that Cortes is inhabiting a world that bears a laughable resemblance to our own, and doesn’t seem to trust that his stakes will ever be high enough.
An hour or so in, a terrible story decision is made, and the whole movie goes to pot: the most interesting characters are shunted aside and the movie becomes a strange sort of supernatural thriller. The tone swings wildly between skepticism and the assumption of godlike power on de Niro’s part, sometimes within the same scene. A number of confrontations are set up, but Cortes steadfastly refuses to pay them off, instead opting to wrap his climax around an oddly brutal fistfight and a monologue-heavy showdown.
Murphy acquits himself well enough; Weaver has a few good scenes and one great monologue. In every other minute of its running time, this film does inexcusable violence to the careers of every other actor involved. Elizabeth Olsen, no doubt attracted to the idea of working with Weaver and de Niro, is instead saddled with the most thankless role of the year, leaving Martha Marcy May Marlene as a distant memory. The fine character actor Toby Jones is mostly in the film to be embarrassed by Weaver.
And as for de Niro, this may well be rock bottom in a five-year period marred by a series of bombs. He alternates between nearly comatose and scenery-chewing, and each usually happens when the other is called for. It’s reminiscent of the odious Righteous Kill, except de Niro is somehow even worse here than in that film. Very few actors, ever, have earned as much forgiveness for their failures as de Niro has. But failures as bad as this should rightly try the audience’s collective patience.
The most brutal wound is a final twist, which further cheapens the Weaver character by rendering her life’s work meaningless. A fine movie might have been made from the premise of Red Lights, but the end product is as far from fine as can be imagined.