Editor’s note: Red Lights hits limited release this Friday, so please take this re-run of our Sundance review (originally posted on January 23, 2012) as a green light to give it a read.
Rodrigo Cortés returns to Sundance after 2010’s Buried with another film about confinement and restriction – but one that turns those attentions to the human mind and its limits, instead of the body and its own absolutes. In Red Lights, Cortés sets his sights on the world of paranormal investigations, but in a way wholly different than we’ve come to expect from horror flicks that mine similar territory. Red Lights centers on Drs. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Buckley (Cillian Murphy), who work to disprove paranormal activity. The pair split their time between teaching at a university (to packs of eager students) and traveling to presumed paranormal occurrences (to debunk them).
Both Matheson and Buckley maintain that they’ve never seen true paranormal activity that cannot be explained in one way or another (most often due to simple lies and farce), but they’re about to be challenged by an old foe of Matheson’s who appears to break all the boundaries the pair set. Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) was once a famous blind psychic, who retired amidst whispers of behavior that led to the death of his greatest critic – and now, he’s returned.
Red Lights works for most of its runtime as a reasonably well-crafted paranormal thriller, complete with massive revelations and earned scares (beware of birds). Yet, it’s never fully absorbing, and its middle drags on, both too wordy and too unimportant. The film is, however, an intriguing spin on a buddy flick – Weaver and Murphy work quite well together, and their characters reflect that nice, natural ease. Murphy in particular is fun to watch here – finally getting a chance for a performance that allows him to be a regular leading man, not some creep leering around corners (which has too often been the case with his work as of late). The first half of the film feels a bit like Ti West’s The Innkeepers, a workplace drama with lurking terror at the edges.
However, the majority of the film’s other performances are severely lacking. Sundance darling Elizabeth Olsen is decidedly nonessential in her role as Matheson and Buckley’s student, serving no purpose other than to occasionally think of something smart-ish and to comfort Buckley. All of her work could have been farmed out to other characters. Toby Jones plays his usual sniveling jerk as Dr. Shackleton, who seems less and less interested in the truth as each minute ticks by. But perhaps the worst offender here is Robert De Niro of all people, who plays his Simon Silver so to that hilt that his performance is most comparable to a ham sandwich. De Niro replaces real acting with repeatedly yelling the same lines, getting less believable with each bray.
The film has already been the subject of derision at Sundance, with an elongated ending that has not played well to crowds. While the tone and feel of the film’s final twenty minutes don’t quite fit with the rest of the film, Cortés certainly uses that time to take a risk and to make Red Lights speak to a more universal emotion than paranormal activity control tests would yield on their own. It’s assuredly bold, but it’s pulled off so poorly that it plays as laughable, so silly that it detracts from the rest of an otherwise intriguing film.
The Upside: Cillian Murphy breaks out and proves that he’s more than capable of not playing a villain, while the film offers an interesting world to explore and some solid initial scares.
The Downside: Wasted supporting characters, a sagging middle, and an ending that play so silly that it’s already brought the laughs at Sundance.
On the Side: Has Joely Richardson ever looked as evil as she does here? Has Joely Richardson ever looked evil ever?