Mysticism and superstition can provide hope. If there’s something beyond our world, something we can’t see, then perhaps there’s a shortcut, a fount of secret knowledge, anything that can provide a solution when the real world doesn’t have one we like. That’s where con artists come in and appeal to our desire for a great beyond. These frauds carry themselves as the special people who will use their gift (and a curse! It’s always a blessing and a curse with these things) to heal the body and/or soul. Rodrigo Cortés supernatural thriller Red Lights puts us on the side of skeptical scientists who aren’t opposed to the paranormal, but have yet to see any evidence of it. Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Dr. Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) use the power of science rather than the supernatural to debunk these phony mystics. But in its second half, Red Lights makes a major narrative turn, shifts the tone, draws the viewer deeper into the possibility of the paranormal, and has its characters struggle to keep a hold on reality. However, the film ends in a serious backfire where a clumsy execution breaks the spell.
Matheson and Buckley work in a college’s paranormal research department, but not as believers. The film starts out almost like a remake of The X-Files but with two Agent Scullys and instead of a poster reading “I Want to Believe”, the poster says “I Want to Understand.” The two doctors are champions of science and reason, and the first half of the film is spent sending them out as mystic-busters who wouldn’t mind seeing the paranormal, but tend to expect the pathetically-normal trying to pass as something more. When celebrated psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement, Tom sees it as a chance to expose the world’s biggest fraud, but Margaret firmly refuses to launch an investigation. As the story unfolds, Tom becomes more and more obsessed with taking down Silver and exposing the truth.
The first half of Red Lights could be the basis for an excellent, episodic TV series where the characters go out and take down the illusions of ghosts, psychics, and other paranormal phenomenon. But audiences want the paranormal, so it’s to Cortés’ great credit that he makes the first half of the film so damn cool. It’s a joy to not only watch these scientists take down their targets, but the story also lets us spend more time with Tom and Margaret, and witness their wonderful surrogate mother-son relationship. The two actors have great chemistry, and Murphy gives a strong performance, but Weaver is the standout. She hasn’t played a character this bad-ass since the Alien movies, and Red Lights is always better when she’s on screen.
As the picture transitions to the second half, Red Lights starts to feel like almost a completely different movie, but in an intentional way. Cortés doesn’t let the film get away from him, and he pushes the audience deeper into Tom’s psyche. The writer-director subdues Xavi Giménez‘ cinematography in the first half to show how the characters view a flat, science-based world where there’s no room for deceptive theatrics. But when the film moves to the second-half, Giménez’ weaves some gorgeous visuals to show the encroaching theatricality (i.e. deceptiveness) of the battle between Tom and Silver. De Niro, surprisingly, rises to the occasion, and rather than do his usual sleepwalking, he instills enough mystery and danger into Silver to make us wonder if perhaps the characters really does have psychic powers.
Cortés does a tremendous job by taking a story with two distinct halves, and keeping the shift from being unintentionally jarring. Moving from the tight, controlled, precise first-half to a chaotic, suspenseful, and intense second-half works because it mirrors Tom’s mental state and it keeps us on board with the character. Everything clicks together as Cortés thoughtfully bends the technical aspects to perfectly fit the story.
Until it falls apart at the end. Red Lights has a clear idea about how it wants to sum up its story and themes, but it has no idea how to do it. The execution of the ending comes off as clumsy and unintentionally comic as it stops and stutters through its closing statement. It’s a surprising failure considering the intelligence and skill that went into the preceding 110 minutes. More damning is how the ending undermines a character’s earlier motives and work. We’re left wondering if changing the execution of the ending would solve the larger problem presented by the final plot point.
Red Lights is too well-made, too well-acted, and too well-photographed to write off the entire movie because the ending doesn’t work. The overall picture is weakened by the conclusion, but nothing can take away the thrills and drama Cortés delivers for the majority of the film. “Red Lights,” notes Margaret, “are things that shouldn’t be.” The movie’s ending is a red light, but everything else is in its right place.
For all of our coverage of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far: