Call Wes Craven’s Red Eye a claustro-thriller—a compact model of B movie, cheap in spirit if not always budget, that relies on the compression of space and time. These sleek, motorized contraptions date to single-set plays (and Hitchcock films), and in the last decade have thrived as a form of Hollywood high concept: blockbusterized in Nick of Time, Speed, and Panic Room, and infused (by screenwriter Larry Cohen) with proper pulpy sensationalism in Phone Booth and Cellular. Largely set aboard a Dallas-Miami overnight flight, Craven’s terror-alert white-knuckler is a zippy, unpretentious entry in the subgenre, hinging on the enforced proximity of cat and mouse.
Barely 80 minutes, Red Eye is a memorably turbulent short hop, simulating an economy-class traveler’s sense of harried constant motion. The amusing setup—from airport-bound taxi to crawling check-in line to the stressful, jostling modern ritual that is the boarding process—is at once brisk and teasingly protracted. Hotel manager Lisa (Rachel McAdams) is established as a people person (troubleshooting customer tantrums via cell phone) and a daddy’s girl (Brian Cox waits anxiously at home in Miami, slumped in front of the TV). In the terminal, surrounded by throngs of annoying passengers, she strikes up a flirtatious conversation with the suavely dead-eyed smoothy (Cillian Murphy) in line behind her. If his name—Jackson Rippner—isn’t enough of a red flag, the fact that he happens to be sitting next to Lisa on the flight should be.
The instant the aircraft leaves the ground, Jackson breaks the news to our avio-phobic heroine: He’s been assigned to help assassinate Charles Keefe, the deputy secretary of Homeland Security, a guest at Lisa’s hotel, and he needs her to change Keefe’s suite. An accomplice is poised to kill her father if she doesn’t comply. The remainder of the flight is a close-quarters psych-out, with as much nervy duplicity and outright violence as a cramped cabin and fastened seat belts will allow. McAdams deftly modulates between terror and pluck, and Murphy, as in Batman Begins, makes a deliciously foppish villain, not least after a gruesome windpipe injury forces him to improvise a cravat. (That said, the decidedly unmacho Murphy does at times seem a little too easily vanquishable—an impression that his flaming lead turn as an Irish transsexual in Neil Jordan’s forthcoming Breakfast on Pluto will do nothing to dispel.)
Once its protagonists deplane, Red Eye comes down to earth as well, succumbing to the expected death throes as Jackson and Lisa repair to her dad’s house for a mercifully brief bout of slasher hide-and-seek. Lisa’s fortitude under pressure is glibly attributed to a still fresh sexual assault, but McAdams’s surprising grit makes the character a worthy successor to Abel Ferrara and Zo Tamerlis’s Ms. 45. Given Lisa’s backstory, it’s hard not to read
Red Eye as a rape-revenge fantasy writ large, one that displaces its heroine’s righteous, vengeful wrath onto a national, terror-fighting scale. But Craven softens the hawkishness of the allegory by obscuring the identity of the assassins (and the politics of their target). If anything, given its gently misanthropic view of the general populace as rude, pushy, self-absorbed Dr. Phil readers, Red Eye could even be called anti-American—a parable on the horrors of flying coach, from one red state to another.