The director of Buried gets out of the box with a star studded cast investigating fakes and maybe something more substantial in paranormal thriller Red Lights.
Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) is a promising young physicist working with Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) in a research department for a University investigating and debunking people who claim to converse with the supernatural and profit from it. When legendary performer Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement, Tom wants to investigate him but Margaret is apprehensive. When Tom goes ahead anyway, odd things start happening to him, only increasing the suspicion that Silver is that rarest of things: a person with genuine skills in ESP.
Rodrigo Cortes made a massive splash a couple of years ago with Buried, a film which took a very high concept, one A-list Hollywood actor stuck in a box for 90 minutes and did a fair bit with it, making as effective a one-watch film as you’re ever likely to find. Working again in Spanish locations and with a Spanish crew, Cortes is back with a film which may not be nearly as striking in a one-sentence sum up but makes up for this with a cast of real quality and a twisty sounding premise which actually opens itself up to something a lot more interesting.
The “twist” based film is one which has reared its head much in the past and was something very popular a decade or so ago but has since been rejected, something you can see in the likes of M. Night Shyalaman’s work where he started with Oscar nominated fare, making a name for himself with critical and commercial success before crawling ever further up his own arse. What his first couple of films in this vein remembered though was that for a twist-based film to work, you’ve got to have more going on under the hood, the reveal being perhaps satisfactory but not lending well to actually being remembered for anything else. Chief to the central success of Red Lights is the way that it hooks you with the promise of a story where it invites you to guess the ending, is De Niro a fake or not, and uses it as a way of opening the story up to talking about deeper, more emotionally satisfying themes.
To talk too much about what these themes are actually would do a disservice to taking the film in as a first-time watch but what I will say is that the relationship established between Murphy and Weaver is fantastically played by the both, the relationship feeling lived in with mutual respect and affection which lends itself to an ending which all twisty-ness aside works superbly well on an emotional level, filling out the character arcs of both protagonists without over-egging the pudding too much (though the actual “let’s show the audience what the twist actually was” montage is rather too blunt it must be said).
Robert De Niro puts in one of his usual hammy performances he’s been known for of late though here it serves him well. Like Tommy Lee Jones in Men In Black 3, the reality informs the film as De Niro bellows and talks portentously throughout, making it very much known why his character is respected and indeed feared and having a sense of conviction which certainly makes you question how to see things. The rest of the cast are fairly stock, Elisabeth Olsen does OK enough with an underwritten role which is of less interest as it goes on and Craig “Submarine” Roberts is oddly cast as a peer of Olsen’s who looks far younger and never quite works out where his character should be from accent wise.
All of this is put together very well overall though by Cortes, with a sense of style and panache which he wasn’t really able to show with Buried. The scenes where De Niro demonstrates his abilities are very effectively played, especially in a final confrontation between Murphy and he, with Cortes using the scope frame very well to craft some grand imagery (one shot in particular of Murphy standing still as destruction reins down being particularly striking). He’s also not afraid to inject some humour intro proceedings, while the third act is rather intense, the way Murphy is at first freaked out by that which is happening around him and then takes it in his stride leads to some moments you certainly don’t see in every film of this kind.
As you can tell, I was a rather big fan of Red Lights. It’s a film which looks to be fairly standard but turns into something a bit more contemplative and far more introspective than you expect, anchored by a trio of strong performances in the leads.