Red Lights aspires to be a genre movie of ideas. Like a great number of films dealing with supernatural and extraterrestrial phenomena, it’s a thriller in which suspense depends on keeping both viewer and protagonist teetering, in the face of the unexplained, between rational agnosticism and faithful credulity. By the finale, however, Red Lights has become unbelievable in a way that can’t possibly have been intended.
Writer-director Rodrigo Cortés commences with a promising hook of a scene: Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant, young physicist Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), arrive at a family home that’s harassed by poltergeists. Doors slam in seemingly empty rooms, while a hired-on medium conducts a séance over a levitating table. Our heroes aren’t here to exorcize, however, but to expose: Matheson attributes the bumps in the night to the family’s mischievous daughter, and in short order, she’s back in front of a college lecture hall explaining the workings of the old floating-table trick, for she has made her career as a professional debunker of psychic flimflam.
While weathering the hostility that’s an occupational hazard for anyone in the business of disillusion, Matheson and Buckley are faced with their greatest challenge when Simon Silver (Robert De Niro)—a blind celebrity psychic who was a talk show perennial in the 1970s before his greatest public critic died of a suspicious heart attack—emerges from his self-imposed retirement for a comeback tour. He’s Matheson’s bête noire because she could never satisfactorily explain away his seemingly fatal powers, and for a moment, he even made her question her faith of faithlessness.
Red Lights is the second English-language feature from Cortés, the Spanish-born director who, using only Ryan Reynolds, a coffin, and a tight screenplay by Chris Sparling, made an effective thriller in 2010’s Buried. Like Red Lights, whose tagline is “How Much Do You Want to Believe?” Buried is essentially a film about the contending forces of faith and doubt. Trapped in an unmarked premature grave with only a slowly fading cell phone for company, Reynolds’s American contractor captured in Iraq must decide to believe or disbelieve the voices on the other end of the line as to if help—and salvation—is on the way, leading to a finale that plays like a parody of resurrection.
Unfortunately, the greater scope and an affirmative shift in the conclusion of Red Lights hasn’t consequently contributed to a greater power, for everywhere the film is pocked with holes through which a first-drafty wind blows. Elizabeth Olsen, the most able and best-fed of the Olsen dynasty, plays Buckley’s assistant-cum-love-interest, a role that leaves her little to do except say things like “Don’t leave me here” while Tom goes about the business of advancing the plot. There’s no detectable motivation for Silver, neither for his long retreat from the public eye nor for his sudden messianic re-emergence, and a lengthy sequence where Buckley trails Silver is only an excuse for an excursion into Lynchian interior decor and Spooky Black Folks. (For a film with actual insight into the mind of the confidence man, try 1947’s Nightmare Alley.) Although Red Lights’ most effective scenes make the viewer party to the insider rush of cracking codes and unmasking frauds, Cortés abandons this pattern in the last act for a finale that sacrifices his film’s integrity on the altar of a confusing, sub–M. Night Shyamalan twist that is more likely to leave viewers groaning than appreciatively shaking their heads at being taken in.
A Spanish-American co-production, Red Lights was shot in Barcelona and Toronto and takes place in Any City, USA. The film is most effective, however, when it moves into the nowhere-and-everywhere territory of the media, approximating the public realm in which the debate over faith takes place, which Cortés does through simulacra of various forums. A young Silver (Eugenio Mira, speaking with De Niro’s overdubbed voice) appears on a mock Tonight Show and bends spoons à la Uri Geller, then announces his comeback on a pseudo Oprah. Joely Richardson, in the small role of Silver’s agent, evokes something of Ann Coulter in her brittle blondness, sparring with no-nonsense Weaver, quite good in the role of the professional nonbeliever—think Hitchens, Dawkins, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, whomever—who never leaves the house without a well-stocked arsenal of talking points (“When I hear the drumming of hooves, I don’t think unicorns. I think horses”).
It is a matter of course by now that the best filmmakers creating meat-and-potatoes genre work—once the American national dish—are mostly Europeans who have grown up taking for granted the fact that John Carpenter is a serious artist, and the likes of Jaume Collet-Serra, Alexandre Aja, and W.S.Van Dyke have been an invaluable transfusion to a vitiated multiplex culture. Much as I want to believe in Cortés, who is clearly talented and ambitious, there is just too much in Red Lights that encourages agnosticism.