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‘Red Lights’ – a goofy horror movie with no discernible payoff

Red Lights

Directed by Rodrigo Cortés

Written by Rodrigo Cortés

Spain and USA, 2012

It’s difficult to criticize a movie like Red Lights. No, Red Lights isn’t perfect, nor beyond reproach. The issue at hand is that this movie’s flaws, of which there are many, would require a more detailed look at its plot and any spoilers therein. This review won’t ruin the surprises, but only so much can be said of Red Lights’ problems before you learn more of the story than you should. At its core, this film boasts an impressive cast who deliver decent-to-excellent performances; sadly, it also has a script that slowly but surely goes off the rails.

Despite what you may think, Red Lights isn’t an in-depth analysis connecting the desperate choices people make and Roxanne, the character from the famous song by The Police. (Thank you very much, and don’t forget to tip your waitress.) The film focuses on Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant, Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), who work at a university primarily to debunk paranormal phenomena. When world-famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of hiding after 30 years to dazzle audiences once more, Buckley becomes obsessed with exposing Silver as a fraud. Writer and director Rodrigo Cortés focuses on what we perceive as real versus what’s actually happening when we watch a magic act, whether it’s innocuous or something far more sinister, spookier and inexplicable.

If nothing else, Cortés’ script provides Weaver with a corker of a role, a hard-line skeptic whose logic is almost always infallible. Weaver’s having a very good year, and this performance maintains her streak. Her balance of warmth and a no-nonsense nature is a welcome and grounding presence in Red Lights. Partly because she’s so gifted as an actress and partly because of the character’s intelligence, any time Weaver’s not on screen, all you want is to have her back. Murphy and De Niro are solid, the former a bit more than the latter. But it’s Weaver whose time in the film is most worth treasuring.

Cortés, who directed the well regarded Buried, where he somehow made a story with Ryan Reynolds confined in a coffin for 90 minutes not irretrievably boring, does a fine job throughout Red Lights of building and maintaining tension. Where he falters as a director is in giving the audience too many jump scares. There’s a 20-minute section midway through the film so filled with “Oh, it’s just the cat!”-style gags, it’s enough to make the audience assume the rest of the film will be one fakeout after another, to the point of unintentional parody. Another questionable decision is Cortés’ choice to make Red Lights feel strangely claustrophobic. Maybe he’s still stuck on the style of Buried, which lent itself to a naturally tight feel. Here, especially in some key setpieces, his choice to not provide the audience with any grander scope of the surroundings is a misstep.

The script, in many ways, is riddled with problems, as it favors ambiguity over cold, hard facts. While there’s nothing wrong with not answering every audience question, the way that Cortés chooses to resolve (or not resolve) many of the major plots and character arcs in Red Lights only serves to frustrate. Cortés has a few tricks up his sleeve, but the best movie magicians know that there has to be some clarity to those tricks. Though he’s now looked down upon (thanks to making some truly disastrous movies), M. Night Shyamalan was able to shock audiences with the climactic twist in The Sixth Sense precisely because the twist made perfect sense in context. The surprises in Red Lights are somewhat shocking, but less because they fit into the overall story, and more because they seemingly come out of nowhere.

Where Red Lights lacks in its story, Cortés tries to compensate with style, but the flourishes he attempts never fully erase the script problems. And despite a bravura supporting performance from Sigourney Weaver, as well as solid work from Joely Richardson, Elizabeth Olsen, and Toby Jones, Red Lights suffers because even the greatest actors can’t fix the dialogue they’re spouting. They can make the audience forget its clunkiness, but they can’t rewrite it. Sure, Red Lights has an apt and gloomy atmosphere, and is sometimes tense, but it leaves the audience and performers hanging by devolving into a goofy horror movie with no discernible payoff.

– Josh Spiegel