In Brief : Interesting, with strong performances all round by the cast, but ultimately let down by a screenplay with more than a few oversights.
Mini Review : ‘Red Lights’ is a film that needed enigmatic performances from its lead cast and an intelligent, intriguing screenplay in order to succeed. It definitely scores a thumbs up in the first category, but is left lacking in the second with a less than polished final product. The whole has a sort of early eighties feel to it, and the tension mounts as we follow the main characters on their crusade to explore and disprove the paranormal. But then it kind of stutters along, and delivers a less than awe inspiring finale. Although the main story arc looses momentum and is at times a little dubious there are still a few nice touches to enjoy here, but on the whole it feels like it’s ambling in the footsteps of similar fiction before it rather than portraying a bold vision of its own.
Plot : Margaret Matheson and Tom Buckley are two university colleagues who have a mandate to debunk supernatural phenomena. Their work progresses successfully until the return to the scene of one of the world’s most high profile claimants of supernatural gifts. For one, he is a spectre of the past, and one that should be left there; for the other, he represents the ultimate challenge.
Full Review (Contains spoilers) : Robert De Niro, Cillian Murphy, and Sigourney Weaver star in this tale of fraud and supernatural realisation from Spanish writer and director Rodrigo Cortes, following on from the success of his ‘Buried’ with Ryan Reynolds in 2010 (not on writing duty in that instance). The story begins with Murphy and Weaver’s characters (Tom Buckley and Margaret Matheson respectively) exposing a séance and incumbent medium as bunk. Initially, we the audience are unsure as to what we are about to be treated to, whether or not Sigourney Weaver may be playing a sort of ‘super psychic’, as becoming of her acting calibre, brought in to help with this super scary, difficult case. It becomes apparent after this séance that she, and her physics graduate-sidekick Tom, work in academia exposing such hocussing professionally. It allows the director to play with familiar horror film techniques, something which he continues to do in parallel with the story; playing it off against Robert De Niro’s Simon Silver and whether or not he has real psychic abilities, and is thus the exception to the rule. Indeed, in this sense the beginning, and to a lesser extent the whole, is very similar to ‘The Awakening’ released last year (with a wonderful turn by the rising star that is Rebecca Hall).
This question regarding Silver’s legitimacy forms then the crux of the piece. The two protagonists are given a little more depth, mostly via relation to their profession. We learn Tom’s mother may have been given a bogus medical diagnosis from a psychic and died from it, but then later he refers to his mother, to someone else, in the present tense. Matheson’s back story gives the plot a little more meaning, as we see her son lying in a vegetative state in hospital and she tells us the nature of her work doesn’t allow her to give up hope and turn off the machine as she has no evidence or faith that anything awaits us in the afterlife. We also learn she has met Silver in a televised interview thirty years ago and during it he made reference to her hospitalised son, making even her want to believe for a moment. She uses this anecdote to emphasise how dangerous he is to Tom, who seems to be becoming obsessed with exposing Silva as a fraud to the world.
This back story proves interesting, as even though De Niro and Weaver never meet onscreen we are given the distinct impression that their characters’ pasts are a little more involved than we are being told. Perhaps Matheson witnessed something so awesome at the hands of Silver, that she felt compelled to begin a saga to disprove every seemingly supernatural phenomenon, unable to come to terms with what she witnessed. Or perhaps Silver met his match with Matheson, fell in love with her, or even sensed some latent dangerous talent in her akin to his own. It is even possible that he is Buckley’s father, or there is a much more sinister and earthly secret between them. The final answer comes as a misdirected mixture of some of these things, but the acting talents of Weaver and De Niro make the dynamic compelling.
For Tom, he is set up as the naïve headstrong apprentice heading for disaster, a concept not particularly original but nevertheless a wonderfully compelling artifice of storytelling. He is given a love interest in the form of Elizabeth Olsen, a young undergrad in Matheson’s class. It’s unfortunately a completely frivolous and pointless role whose only purpose is to provide a sounding board for some background conversation and, perhaps, a pretty young girl for male members of the audience to look at. Doubly unfortunate for Miss Olsen as this follows directly on from ‘Silent House’ (11), a bad remake of an already terrible Spanish film ‘La Casa Muda’ (10), where the audience were invited to look down her top and nowhere else for pretty much the entirety of the film. Her breasts did perform their role quite admirably, and here she herself does likewise so expect to see more from her in the future, though hopefully with more of an involving role next time.
Further support is given from Toby Jones, a research scientist at the university whose department gets way more funding than Matheson’s and is placed as countermeasure to herself, trying to scientifically prove supernaturalism rather than disprove it. Toby Jones is an incredibly prolific, diverse actor (see his own take on Capote in ‘Infamous’ 06) and he is as usual good here, though again the role is solely in service of the narrative. Cillian Murphy himself gives a convincing performance throughout, complete with what looks a pretty skilful coin flourish, although, thanks to poor camera direction, his magic tricks look less than convincing. Joely Richardson also makes an appearance as Silver’s PA, infusing the role with sex appeal as she does so well, but again, despite adding a little more glamour, the role is entirely 2D and very short (The Red Dragon would like to personally confirm that Joely Richardson is as alluring in real life as she is onscreen).
Before the Silver story really gets going we see the myth busting duo expose a would be psychic in a theatre full of people – breaking into the blacked out box next to theirs where radio messages were being sent to the performer below, who had been busy achieving the seemingly impossible task of knowing private information about random people in the audience. Earlier in the car park outside they pilfer the notebook of one of the performer’s accomplices who seemed to be taking down registration numbers, no doubt to look up information about the vehicles owners and cross reference it with ticket sales. It’s interesting, because although here it is in the context of fake faith healers, and results in criminal prosecution for the perpetrators, this doubtless has parallels with how many perform stage magic today. Derren Brown, for example, commonly seems to pull information from random audience members’ heads, and also mysteriously matches seat numbers to the same people as their introduction. It would be interesting to take a good, close look at the legal context of purchasing a theatre ticket, and the information you give out at the time …
In any event it’s a good scene for the film. When in jail, the con artist tells the zealous Tom to beware of Silver, his mentor, as he has no idea what he is meddling with, increasing the sense of danger and power that De Niro’s character is given to exude; a sense that De Niro is expertly able to deliver. From here we are led to the most interesting part of the film, when the headstrong Mr Buckley decides to go it alone and head back to what appears to be the same box in the same theatre in order to hopefully expose Silver as an artful deceiver. Though this does seem to be a rather dubious theatrical booking, given his understudy was arrested on the very same stage for falsely doing pretty much exactly what Silver is proffering to do mere days/weeks previously.
During this particular performance all eyes are on Silver on centre stage, as an overweight patient is wheeled out on a small operating table, fleshy belly and midriff exposed, and he seems to achieve a small miracle – reaching into the flesh of the man before him and pulling out the bloodied, diseased tissue inside, then somehow closing the wound with his powers and leaving the prone body cured and healthy. When performed on stage this trick almost certainly makes use of a false stomach. Here the audience is wowed, but the scene continually cuts to an increasingly desperate Tom, who is beavering away with his radio equipment as it randomly begins to explode in bursts around him, as if Silver’s cognitive special powers can sense the attempt and they take action. Though the fact real psychic abilities would not need to protect themselves leads us to think it is simply sabotage. All of this though, is not what makes it so interesting. What makes it worthy of special note, is that The Red Dragon has seen this before.
Bizarrely, almost this entire, complete scene appears in an old issue of Spiderman. Now, exactly what issue, or indeed exactly which comic, The Red Dragon isn’t sure, and can’t be without going on a particularly involved search … actually the wonders of the web (no pun intended) have revealed it was in fact ‘Web of Spiderman’ issue 41, ‘The Cult of Love part 2’, if anyone wants to check it out and test my hypothesis then please do, as The Red Dragon freely admits he is working on a many years old memory here. This issue was part two of a four part story that seen Peter Parker, a.k.a. Spiderman, join a cult in order to try and rescue a girl who had become indoctrinated by them. I never got hold of the subsequent edition so never found out how it ended, but during the story Parker is seated in an auditorium watching the exact same procedure being carried out.
The panels of the story clearly show the performer’s hands going into the flesh, coming out bloodied, and then the same flesh washed and mysteriously healed, with fresh water on it just as in the film. In the comic Parker begins to doubt himself as a narrative voice-over tells us such shows are how cults groom their members, daring even the inquisitive and intelligent to believe. Although in the film Tom appears to be preoccupied, the suggestion is still that the performance and the increasingly paranormal activity surrounding it (the whole building begins to tremble) are sucking him in and begin to take a noticeable toll on his mental health, as what his eyes witness clashes so dramatically with the faith he has instilled in his career proving such things to be false. Although this is purely working from memory, the images of the comic and the film are graphically so similar in my mind it seems difficult to imagine one was not influenced by the other.
Interestingly, in each of the three interviews The Red Dragon has seen with Cillian Murphy and Rodrigo Cortes together, Cortes makes mention of the fact he spent a year and a half doing research for the film. Every time he says this, there is a noticeable shift in the expression of Cillian Murphy – is this because he’s slightly bored? Or because he knows this is somewhat misleading or bombastic? Did Cortes simply spend a year and a half reading Spiderman comics and watching spooky films? It’s not plagiarism per se, and certainly such shows in real life no doubt look very similar to the ones depicted in the comic and film, but it is perhaps a little too similar to the inspirational material for its own good, just as the beginning is too close to that of ‘The Awakening’.
From this point on the supernatural element of the film intensifies dramatically. Tom ends up in hospital after the show, then discovers that mysteriously Matheson has died whilst he was there. We learn that the rational explanation for this is a pre-existing medical condition, and indeed we have seen her taking some form of medication throughout. All manner of strange things occur around Buckley, including semi-explosive birds and bodily ceiling suspension. Beginning to lose the plot, his determination to find the truth deepens and he even attempts to confront Silver at one of his secret one-to-one sessions. Cue another nice scene where Tom is separated from Silver by what appears to be a line of salt on the floor, and he sits in awe of the mystic, afraid to speak out lest he give his identity away, and yet the enigmatic Silver seems to know anyway. The finale ensues with Silver undergoing a series of scientific tests and then putting on his last show in the city, and a desperate Tom adamant to prove fraud in the former as he heads for a showdown in the latter.
Here all the big revelations are unveiled, as Tom is beaten up by a paid heavy in the toilets at the show, proving to us that Silver is a fake (and prompting us to wonder if the untimely death of his main public enemy years ago was in fact murder), just as his friends at the university uncover falsity in the earlier experiment. The main aspect of this is that Silver is in fact not blind, something the characters have taken for granted but we have been invited to question early on when the camera gives us a close-up of his eyes and, given the whole thing is a question over his legitimacy, the obvious thing to ask is, well how do we know he is actually blind to begin with? The narrative offers us no hardcore evidence, he certainly appears to be, but then he is a showman. This revelation may also seem a bit of a let down not just because of its set up and delivery, but also because of the success of ‘The Prestige’ back in 2006, replete as it was with such disguises and showmanship. When Tom flicks a coin at him on stage to test him and he catches it, revealing his normal ability to see to the world, it’s a little too easy, surely he would have had the wherewithal to simply ignore it and let it sail past him?
Having said that, he is distracted at the time by the complimentary revelation of Tom’s actual supernatural powers as the whole place begins to shake, much as it did the last time around. Silver shouts repeatedly ‘How are you doing this?’ but surely a professional supernatural fraud such as himself would simply run with it? It could well be a trick not too dissimilar to one of his own. We come to learn the real story has been that of Tom, who has long suspected there was something different about himself, but who was unwilling to accept it, and instead devoted his life to disproving such fantasies. The anecdote he told about his mother, may or may not have something to do with himself, just as Matheson’s death and illness may similarly have something to do with him.
Indeed, his power seems to be haphazardly destructive, increasing when he’s under stress. One of the most curious incidents of its manifestation happens when news of Silver’s return to the scene has been announced and Matheson answers the phone. No one seems to be on the other end, and when she returns to the mug she’d left to take the call, the spoon in it is bent. She doesn’t seem too fussed by this. So we know very early on supernatural forces are at work and from this it points to either Silver, Matheson, or both. But Tom? Why the spoon? It’s nowhere near the phone and nothing else seems affected – does Matheson not react because she’s used to spoons randomly bending and thinks it’s normal? It works for the story at that point, but, well it’s a bit too silly and random.
Similarly, early on Matheson is questioned during a lecture on her beliefs and the possibility of real psychic phenomenon. She replies with the very sound point that real life and nature can often be fantastical enough. She uses the case of Beethoven composing whilst deaf as one example, but it’s interesting when we consider the wealth of information that science is now uncovering about ourselves and the universe we live in. Biologists have come to realise that an organism can evolve significantly within its own lifetime but are only just beginning to unravel the secrets of the human genome and all its potential. Physicists have discovered the best evidence yet to prove the existence of the Higgs-Boson particle, showing we’re making huge leaps forward in terms of understanding our world, yet also illustrating just how much we still don’t know and just how much we are intimately connected to the micro and macro world around us. After all, atoms in our bodies were once at the hearts of stars burning away, stars which themselves came from one infinitesimally small point in existence, or perhaps, more correctly, non-existence. Put in this context, the spooky goings on in Red Lights are pretty lame.
It is perhaps worthy to note on the fact that filmmakers invariably portray the supernatural as a dark and sinister force, partly the essence of horror films, partly maybe our natural fear of the unknown. Yet, we as a species floating in space are so fragile that it would hardly take anything at all to wipe us out. Alien virus. Dead. Asteroid. Dead. Alien invasion by pretty much any alien species capable of space travel we can think of. Dead. Ghosts that can hurt people. Dead. (Like the ghosts in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ – why didn’t they just recruit them in the beginning? They’re indestructible! ‘Hmm, what do we have to bargain with… I suppose we have the only living being that can free them from eternal slavery. Hmm… or we could give the ring to two hobbits, take an enormous gamble, and sacrifice half of the population of Middle Earth. Decisions, decisions…’).
It might not be ridiculous to draw a conclusion from this that the universe is actually a fairly benevolent place for life, and that rather than waste time worrying about all the ways it could end, we should simply enjoy it. I suppose you could argue if it was really looking out for us we’d be impervious to disease and fire etc. but perhaps it likes us needing to look out for one another. To bring us back to the point, mental trickery of the sort going on here still very much remains science fiction to us, but who knows, in the future perhaps there will be a quantum understanding of the likes of deja vu as we unlock the mysteries of the mind, and just as once upon a time seeing a rainbow must have felt like seeing a snapshot of some godly realm, and we can now produce the same effect from a simple prism, perhaps one day seemingly improbable tricks of the mind will be child’s play.
The director has stated he wants ‘Red Lights’ to ask questions, and it does stay with you afterward quite well and linger on. However, this has more to do with the cast and the cinematography which succeed in creating a distinctive sense of something, but a something that is ultimately hollow and too ill defined by a randomly whimsical screenplay that is creative on its surface only. A film like this should have people wanting to see it again, armed with full knowledge of the story, but it’s let down by an underlying structure simply not crafted well enough to ever allow it to work on the grand scale it aims at. Decent, but a shame it isn’t better.