There’s so much potential to the new movie from Buried helmer Rodrigo Cortés – haunted houses, séances, paranormal investigators, psychics – that it’s shocking how a movie that starts out so well can so quickly run out of steam and end with such a thud.
Drs. Margaret Matheson and Tom Buckley (Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy) have dedicated their careers as paranormal investigators to debunking false psychics and those profiting on the beliefs of others. The announcement by famous blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) that he’s coming out of retirement after thirty years gets Tom excited to finally prove him to be a fraud, but his boss knows there’s more to Silver and warns him to stay away. He doesn’t.
The first time we meet Sigourney Weaver’s Margaret Matheson and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) they’re exploring a house that’s seemingly haunted, like a scene out of Poltergeist or James Wan’s Insidious – if the whole movie remained on this track, it may have been remotely interesting. After that we spend a lot of time with the two of them at the university where they teach students about how hustlers and their tricks, while their competitive colleague, played by Toby Jones, is conducting his own psychic experiments. What changes the game is the return of Simon Silver, a blind psychic who has been in retirement for thirty years after a primary detractor suffers a heart attack at his show. Silver is the white whale that Tom immediately wants to pursue but Margaret’s own encounters with Silver makes her hesitant.
You can tell Cortés did a good deal of research into actual psychic phenomena and how hucksters and frauds use tricks to get money out of unwitting suckers, but none of that information is used to create a thriller that’s particularly investing. That’s not to say “Red Lights” is a horrible movie but the movie’s mainly watchable due to Sigourney Weaver’s character and once she leaves the picture, it’s all Cillian Murphy’s show and that’s where it really goes downhill quickly with him delivering an incredibly overwrought performance that’s hard to take seriously.
This is also when thing start spiraling downwards into “what the f*ck is going on?” territory as things start happening that don’t make a lot of sense, pointing to Silver being the real thing despite Tom’s insistence he’s a fake. (This stuff is later explained via the movie’s idiotic twist, which inevitably makes the whole movie that much more aggravating.)
Playing Silver does not require much from De Niro who coasts through a performance that falls somewhere between Louis Cyphre in “Angel Heart” and his more comedic roles, not a particularly memorable role but he’s head and shoulders more entertaining then watching Murphy careening around. Elizabeth Olsen’s role as Tom’s student who helps him in his investigation is such a nothing role that it could be played by any actress rather than being wasted on a solid actor like Olsen.
Even worse, Cortés squanders any possibilities of making Red Lights a scary movie, instead going for the cheapest scares possible – a bird flying into a window for instance – and further evidence of the lazy filmmaking can be found in the repeated use of news broadcasts and reporters to break up the exposition. By then, it’s too late because we’ve already been driven to boredom by all the talking.
As much as director Brian De Palma has proven himself to be a devout Hitchcock “follower” with his notorious homages, Cortes goes one better (or worse) by actually ripping off De Palma’s “Carrie” for the grand climax before delivering a ridiculous twist from out of left field that not even M. Night Shyamalan would appreciate. By then, the movie has probably already lost you, since it loses a lot without Weaver in the mix.
Having a premise with serious potential and such a high-caliber cast, there’s really no excuse for “Red Lights” to be such a wasted opportunity. Instead of creating a definitive thriller based around psychic phenomena, Cortés delivers a bland and obvious movie that loses its way long before it kills any good will with its ridiculous twist ending.