Littered with glaring lapses of logic, Rodrigo Cortés’ Red Lights ultimately ends up being almost entirely incomprehensible. Cortés’ previous feature was the tense, claustrophobic thriller Buried that took place entirely within the confines of a coffin. Perhaps he shouldn’t have expanded the scope so much for Red Lights. Though it seems to be heading somewhere fairly interesting in its first half, the death of a major character midway through sends the film into a tailspin it never recovers from.
The impressive cast will certainly sucker in quite a few renters. Heading things up are Sigourney Weaver, as paranormal investigator Margaret Matheson, and Cillian Murphy as Tom Buckley, her devoted assistant. Margaret has dedicated her life to debunking as many fraudulent psychics, clairvoyants, and anyone else making supernatural claims as possible. Think of Weaver as sort of an anti-Ghostbuster, some 20-plus years after her involvement in that franchise; she’s not ready to believe you. Tom ropes in a student he’s sweet on, Sally (Elizabeth Olsen), for extra help. They stake out every paranormal claim they hear of, searching for subtle signs of trickery (the so-called “red lights” of the title).
None other than Robert De Niro shows up as Simon Silver, a popular blind psychic performer who was forced into retirement after the controversial death of one of his biggest detractors. Silver was a household name in his day, but after an audience member dropped dead of a heart attack while challenging Silver’s authenticity, the showman became a recluse. He’s chosen to come out of retirement to “cure” more folks of cancer and various ailments as part of his stage show. Tom wants to expose him as a fake, but Margaret insists on steering clear. She knows that Silver is big business and could easily take her and Tom out of commission if they dare get in the way of his income stream. Plus, despite being a true disbeliever, Silver is the only psychic who has ever caused Margaret to question her certainty that it’s all hocus-pocus.
All of this occurs in the rather interesting first half, but midway through it begins to feel as if large chunks of story are missing. Any real discussion of the second half would require significant spoilers, but in the end it isn’t even worth going into. Some mild suspense is generated by the apparently genuine paranormal phenomena that begins occurring, affecting the characters in significant ways. Is Simon Silver the real deal? An actual faith healer who can remove cancer by digging his fingers into a conscious person? Tom is firmly against it, but his methods of debunking become sloppy and haphazard as the story progresses. His meeting with Silver at the performer’s apartment is like something out of Twin Peaks. The ending is something straight out of a grade Z M. Night Shyamalan rip-off.
For what it’s worth, both Weaver and Murphy invest some actual passion in their performances. I really appreciated Murphy’s sympathetic portrayal, considering he has often come across as a very detached screen presence. Elizabeth Olsen is wasted, for the most part, in a woefully underwritten role. She doesn’t seem to know what’s expected of her and winds up turning in an extended Maggie Gyllenhaal impersonation. De Niro is no more or less embarrassing than he is in any of the million and one cruddy movies in which he has taken supporting roles over the last couple years (Freelancers, New Year’s Eve, Killer Elite).
Red Lights looks fantastic on Blu-ray with a 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer. Xavi Giménez’s cinematography is quite strikingly stylized, resulting in some interesting visuals. Most of the film plays out in low-lighting situations, but fine detail and overall sharpness are undiminished. Fittingly, given the title, many scenes are bathed in moody, red lighting. Never do we see any smeary, bleeding colors. Everything about the visual presentation is rock solid.
The Dolby TrueHD 5.1 soundtrack is also commendable, with effective contrast between hushed atmospheric effects and loud, bombastic “scare” moments. A scene in which piercing feedback is heard through an earpiece is almost as torturous for the viewer as it is for the character wearing the earpiece. Victor Reyes often spooky score cuts through the sound effects when needed. Dialogue is, if anything, a little quiet and occasionally thin sounding. I found myself boosting the volume for the quieter, talkier scenes, only to back off for the noisier segments. Even so, this is a fine mix that does everything it needs to.
Special features are skimpy. “Cast Interviews” (11 minutes) and “Director’s Interview” (6 minutes) are the only featurettes worth taking a look at, but even they are nothing more than brief promotional pieces. All the primary cast members chime in with high praise for writer-director Rodrigo Cortés. The screenplay was pure genius, they tell us, but how much of that made it to the final cut is anybody’s guess. “Making of Red Lights” (11 minutes) mixes film clips with recycled bits from the interviews. Finally, “Behind the Scenes” (2 minutes) is simply a few clips of the crew at work.
The cast is the sole reason anyone should bother with this dud. Red Lights holds some appeal for anyone who absolutely must see everything Robert De Niro or Sigourney Weaver does. But for everyone else, you’re better off re-watching any old X-Files two-parter.