NOTE: This review makes references to the film’s ending, which may affect your viewing. I mention this as a warning if you prefer to go in with as little information as possible.
I can’t say people won’t be frustrated by the way Red Lights ends. In fact, it was the battle cry coming out of Sundance 2012 with many saying the final minutes ruined it for them. I mention this only because I’d heard this complaint going into the film and it likely affected my viewing, although I don’t believe it was a negative effect.
I also mention it because the ending has apparently been changed since it played the Park City festival, but I have no clue in what way. That said, while Red Lights director Rodrigo Cortes’ sleight of hand may not be as dexterous as it needs to be to carry out the film’s overarching narrative, I still think the film raises enough thematic, faith-based issues to make it worth watching and exploring.
I am one of those people that looks at human existence and questioning where we go when we die and is comfortable saying, “I don’t know,” while also being intrigued by the conversation. This applies to God, the Big Bang, Heaven, Hell or whatever particulars pertain to scientific theory and/or faith-based religions out there. However, I do believe something bigger than us is out there — I have faith in that — I just can’t put my finger on what it is and I’ve always been fascinated by the discussion of “What is out there?” and “What do you believe?”
I enjoy hearing the beliefs of others and why they think the way they do as long as they are open to the my beliefs and feelings as well. Red Lights aims to open that discussion once again as a pair of professional paranormal investigators seek to expose fraudulent psychics, faith healers, mind readers, etc. in search of clues to reveal the true secret to their “power” and in the title we find the true motivations of these characters.
Sigourney Weaver plays our lead paranormal expert, Dr. Margaret Matheson, a woman whose son has been living on life support since an early age. Margaret’s driving professional motivation appears to be a search for a sign there is something after death, in large part so she can find any reason to end her son’s lifelong coma and know there’s something else out there for him. Being a woman without faith, ruled by logic and what she “knows”, she can’t simply submit herself to believing without knowing. In her particular field of research, her skepticism is a vital asset as she searches for the “red lights” that indicate the person they’re investigating is a fraud.
Her assistant, a physicist named Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), does as he’s told, but at first appears to be motivated for different reasons. Instead of consistently looking for clues as to how they may be fooled, he’s looking to be convinced it’s real. While that still means keeping an eye out for how they may be deceived, there’s an optimism guiding him. Unfortunately, even for the most optimistic, a string of frauds will lead you down a path to pessimism, doubt and frustration. Tom is no better.
The narrative trigger in this film is the world renown psychic, healer and mind reader Simon Silver (Robert De Niro). He serves as something of a thorn in Margaret’s side, but one she’s decided isn’t painful enough to bother herself with. Silver is a man she’s convinced is a charlatan, but his talent is beyond her expertise. Tom, however, is still green and sees Silver as a man that must be proven as a fraud and with Silver re-emerging for what appears to be his farewell tour after an extended time in seclusion, now may be their last opportunity.
Throughout the film you’re asked what you believe to be real and what is a hoax with Silver being the crown jewel at the end of the line. How much proof do you need before you’re willing to accept there is something beyond this world? At what point will you even question what you’re looking for and your motivations for the “truth”?
The key to most of this lies in the film’s conclusion, one I believe you can interpret one of two ways. The first is to look at it purely on a surface level, examining the narrative as it has played out before your eyes without looking any deeper at why characters may be doing what they are doing. Or, you can take a closer look at the film’s two leads and begin examining their motivations.
Elizabeth Olsen plays a small role in the feature as a student of Matheson’s who begins to assist in their investigations and forms a relationship with Tom. The only reason she is there is to provide an avenue for perspective. She is our method of interpretation and perception. She’s the only one that can see Tom and Margaret as they are, without their particular prejudices clouding her view.
Yes, the film has its problems, chiefly Toby Jones as another university professor attempting to prove the existence of extrasensory powers, serving as something of a rival of Margaret’s. If we’re meant to take him seriously, and not simply as a plot device, it would have been better to at least make him a little smarter. Even I could have beat his “what’s on the card?” test before Margaret goes on to make a fool of him. On top of that, a scene where Tom physically assaults him as pressure to put him on a panel of scientists studying Silver is as ridiculous as it sounds.
But then again, I find myself arguing more for the ideas behind the film rather than its overall execution. I think more people would be willing to accept the film’s finale had it not been so hackneyed up to that point. But even still, people hate to be fooled. They want all the answers and are usually unwilling to look beyond the surface if what they see is enough to gain an acceptable understanding of what’s going on. When we can poke a few holes in something we often won’t stop until we’ve ripped it wide open, leaving it to die without a second thought.
When it comes to Red Lights don’t focus on what’s right in front of you. Look beyond the obvious and search for motivation. Cortes has you focusing on one thing when you should be focusing your attention elsewhere. For me I found the underlying themes to have a lot to do with the human search for significance and as much as we all want to be thought of as unique, there are some ways we don’t want to be looked at as different. Sometimes, that can be scary, especially if finding the answers to life’s biggest questions prove to be impossible.