RUNNING TIME: 113 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Psychologist Margaret Matheson and physicist Tom Buckley go on expeditions to debunk fake mediums and psychics. Margaret is increasingly dissatisfied and even bored from being unable to come across a real challenge while Tom is getting more and more keen. Tom begins to get interested in Simon Silver, a world famous, blind psychic and want to prove him as a fraud, but Margaret seems strangely reluctant to investigate him. Then a student of Tom’s Sally Owen, who also teaches people to in classrooms to spot the tricks of fakery, asks to help him and he enlists her aid in his quest to unmask Simon, who is beginning a major comeback and about to perform in front of huge audiences. Unfortunately, Simon doesn’t seem too happy about people poking around in his business…..
It took me a few days to get around to seeing Red Lights, but rest assured this was one film I had been looking forward to for some time. Its director, writer and editor Rodrigo Cortez’s first directorial effort Buried was amazingly successful in making cinematic and exciting a premise which could have resulted in utter boredom; a person who is buried alive with the camera being with him the entire time, never venturing outside. I couldn’t wait to see what this guy, who has also made some very good short films, could do with a bigger budget and Hollywood stars. Red Lights doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression and for a while seemed to have trouble securing distribution in the US, but this is a very fine film indeed, different, actually, to what I expected, but probably better. It isn’t really a straight forward thriller nor a straight forward horror film, something which seems to have irritated some people. Their loss.
Nor is Red Lights a fast paced barrage of thrills and chills which you may have been led to believe, at least for much of its length. Instead, it is quite a sober film, and I suppose some could find it a little dull in the early parts, but I really liked the slow spell this very 70s-style picture cast and the icy grip that gradually tightened and tightened like a noose. Now of course the theme is parapsychology and there is no doubt that this is a subject that has been done to death in movies but Red Lights approaches it from a somewhat different angle to the norm, being principally about attempts to disprove the supernatural rather than prove it. It actually opens in a very conventional fashion, with Margaret and Tom going to a séance, and, despite the fact that séance scenes have been done to death in films, the sequence gets quite intense….until of course the rug is pulled out from under our feet when a little girl runs out, the previously hidden voice of the ‘spirit’.
Margaret and Tom are an interesting pair in what is a nice cinematic relationship between an older woman and a younger man which is neither romantic nor motherly but still seems to be based on mutual need. Margaret is a shell of a woman who really tires of what she is doing but feels compelled to keep on doing it for some reason, while Tom loves doing this stuff yet is vague about why. Yes, this is an intelligent film where characters seem to have hidden agendas, not everything is spelled out and the audience has to think. Many things will of course be explained later, but not everything. In the meantime we follow these two folk around in their mission, and the film ambles along leisurely for quite a while, but a strange atmosphere is built up, slightly scary, slightly odd and even slightly sad. At times the film’s feeling reminded me of Ringu, at other times of M. Night Shyamalan when he was good. Even Alfred Hitchcock came into my mind during two elaborate set pieces in a theatre hall.
Cortez has a brilliant knack for creating a feeling of unease is a subtle way. In an early conversation scene in a cafe, the camera suddenly goes to outside where we are now watching the people through the window and can still hear what they are saying but the sound of the traffic can also be heard. In fact, I loved the way the whole film was shot, which is mostly in an elegant, old-fashioned fashion, but with the occasional strange angle or quick cut making a great impression. Sometimes the camerawork briefly turns handheld when Tom is in a panic and we are closely behind his head, and a brutal fight in a public restroom opens with quick cuts and close ups, but then changes to more traditional filming. This brawl, by the way, which I am surprised didn’t give Red Lights a ‘15’ certificate with the way sinks and toilets are put to great use, is the best cinematic restroom fight in a very long time, though perhaps seems out of place. The mention of it though should tell you that, though the movie may seem very slow for a while, it does get quite thrilling. It’s not full of action, but around half way, when the investigation into Simon really gets underway, the pace quickens and quickens. One section where Tom seems to be subjected to maybe supernatural occurrences, from car stereos turning on by mistake to more scary happenings which certainly gave me a chill, does take the film into conventional horror territory, though not for long.
Victor Reyes’s omnipresent and very gripping score is almost a character in the film itself though some may feel Cortez relies a little too much on it, especially when he is obviously too fond of the overused trick of having a person suddenly appear usually to a loud musical note, but he tells his story well, pacing the twists and turns perfectly and making conversations as important as action. Early on, Margaret explains why she fears Simon, and Sigourney Weaver’s superb acting helps her story have a rather creepy vibe. Later on, Tom encounters Simon, and you think you’re either going to get a fight or a very long talk. In fact, you get some brief dialogue of considerable vagueness and then the scene ends, but as well as increasing the mysteriousness it plays with the audience’s feelings. There are times throughout where you may feel sorry for poor old Simon and seriously dislike these people who are hassling him. I will say that Elizabeth Olsen’s character Mary’s inclusion is pointless, especially when she turns up in Tom’s bed with no explanation. We should have either seen a bit more of their relationship or it should not have been in the film at all.
Now of course there is a Big Twist, which I didn’t guess until about a minute before the actual revelation. Some seems to like it, some don’t. I loved it, and this is coming from someone who is tiring of twists just put into films because it is thought they need one. It made me rethink the whole story and, even if you don’t like it, you may agree that it reinforces the very real sense of human sadness that seems to lie in the back of Red Lights’s devious story. Paradoxically, it also seems to prefer magic and the paranormal to the’ real’, emphasising I suppose how some people need the world of the imagination, to believe in a different, less logical world that may exist just beyond or even in ours. After all, Sally does say “if everything’s explained, you take away all the magic”. With terrific performances by all especially a career-best Cillian Murphy, Weaver in what comes across as a variation on her Avatar role but with more depth, a sometimes scary and sometimes rather sad and vulnerable Robert De Niro, and a typical scene –stealing turn by Toby Jones that, as usual, just makes you want to focus on him despite who else in on screen, Red Lights has some flaws but is still a little magical itself and I feel may be one of the most underrated film of the year.