Don’t Go, by Josh Long
How gullible are you? Does your own gullibility affect your acceptance of the paranormal? Do people find truth in psychics and faith healers, or does their own desire to believe trick them into acceptance? Rodrigo Cortes’ Red Lights follows two researchers set on exposing those who claim to have paranormal powers, both of them believing they have never found a single legitimate case.
Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are scientific researchers who seek out cases of the “paranormal” and expose them. They’re in the business of catching hucksters, and are able to spot the “red lights” – signs of “supernatural” chicanery – with professional precision. When a legendary psychic named Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) decides to come out of retirement, Buckley wants their team to expose him, but Matheson warns against it. She had run ins with Silver before his retirement, and tells Tom that he’s too dangerous. She believes that he’s dangerous not by his psychic powers, but because of his skills of perception and suggestion. Tom is determined to take Silver down, and in the process is caught up in a surging downward spiral, questioning his own grasp on reality.
There are a lot of things to like here. Director Rodrigo Cortes has a vibrant style and a flair for suspense. He draws us in to these paranormal scams before revealing to us why they’re fake. He also makes the smart decision of using practical effects rather than copious CG, even though we’re dealing with the supernatural and paranormal. This keeps the audience believing that this could be real, and it could be fake. The direction does a great deal to build a sense of dread – unfortunately, the story isn’t strong enough to support it.
While Cortes shows some real talent as a director, there are some big weaknesses in his writing. On the surface, there’s some clunky dialogue, some throw away characters, and twists that give themselves away far too early. But the bigger problems are on a deeper level. One is that the reality of the movie’s world is far-fetched, and poorly (it at all) explained. Main characters Buckley and Matheson’s research seems to be funded by a fictional college, in which Matheson also teaches a class (the first scene where we see the class, several students ask the most obvious expositional questions – “so are you saying that every paranormal experience has a rational explanation?”). The nature of the research, and the class, and why a university would pay for something like this is a little fuzzy.
It becomes more confusing when it’s revealed that Matheson has to fight for funding with the university’s “Scientific Paranormal Research Center,” which, judging by their laboratory, must get tens of millions of dollars for funding to study things like telepathy. Maybe the university is owned by a crazy eccentric billionaire – I don’t know. Perhaps it’s supposed to be set in some sort of alternate reality, because in the world of the film, the populace seems obsessed with paranormal powers. Simon Silver is a celebrity on the level of Oprah. People pay $2000 for tickets to see his shows, and when Matheson calls him out on a panel talk show, it makes front page news. This obsession with psychic powers is much too big to exist in the real world.
Which leads to another major problem – with a film that begins with researchers studying the paranormal, why does the filmmaker choose psychics as the focus? The credit sequences evokes UFOs and ghosts, but the film chooses to focus in on a much less interesting subject. There’s a suggestion early on that Simon Silver may have once caused a heart attack in one of his detractors, but other than that, there’s little sense that much is at stake. If Silver’s telling the truth, then he’s using his powers to heal people and entertain them. If he’s lying, then he’s a cheat. The worst that could happen is that Silver will get money he doesn’t deserve. The film’s heightened suspense doesn’t do enough to make us care about the stakes.
There’s a pretty great cast here, but it’s not too often they’re given much to do. Murphy carries the film, and does have some very good scenes. He and Weaver have a good chemistry, but it would mean more if their relationship were developed more. For all we know they’re just co-workers thrown together who seem to get along well. Elizabeth Olsen pops up as Buckley’s (unlikely) love interest, and manages to give a notable performance, despite being mostly unnecessary to the plot. Toby Jones plays the head of the Scientific Paranormal Research Center, but the lines and actions he’s given make him look like a total dunce, weakening the credibility of his position and research. Craig Roberts shows up as a student and, though I’m confident he’s a good actor (see Submarine), comes off as wooden and uncomfortable.
Red Lights is the work of a good director, but a weak screenwriter. It’s a potentially interesting story, and perhaps in the hands of a Damon Lindelof or an Orci & Kurtzman, it might be much stronger. As is the case with Cortes’ 2010 Buried, he may work better when directing someone else’s writing. All in all, there are some entertaining moments, some well-directed suspense sequences, and some interesting questions about perception. But when it comes to the details of the story – I’m not falling for it.