Mark Reviews Movies

Red Lights


1 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Rodrigo Cortés

Cast: Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones, Burn Gorman, Joely Richardson, Craig Roberts

MPAA Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Running Time: 1:53

Release Date: 7/13/12 (limited); 7/27/12 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | July 27, 2012

A man closes the palm of his hand around a coin. He quickly moves his hands back and forth, over and under each other, until he asks the woman across the table from him which hand contains the coin. Neither does, of course. The trick was to make her look in the wrong place, he tells her.

"The only way to pull a rabbit out of a hat is to it there in the first place," the same man tells the woman in their conversation. He doubts that supernatural abilities, which some would dub magic, exist, and he's spent a good part of his life trying to prove those who would claim to possess such powers wrong.

If one is going to attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the audience, there must be a skillful balance of ensuring we're prepared for the surprise while not anticipating it too much. Red Lights has no such balance; it screams at us to look in the corners. Even the title refers to what most people would call "red flags"—things that seem too strange to be real or in their proper place.

It would not be a spoiler to say that the movie revolves around a twist or two because writer/director Rodrigo Cortés telegraphs the fact that some supposedly shocking revelation(s) is/are in store for us by the time his story of professional skeptics and the allegedly faithful ends. Beyond the balance of fooling us without making the whole process noticeable, there's also the trick of ensuring the deception isn't obvious. Here, at least one of them is from the moment the fake-out makes its first, unnecessarily showy appearance on screen. Another is less apparent, but it ultimately eliminates the conflict at the heart of its premise in favor of a simple explanation that answers all while raising questions and framing the narrative in a way the movie has not earned.

The movie opens with an ingenious sequence of events. Doctors Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) attend a séance at a house that is supposedly haunted. As a crash sounds in a distant room, the table around which the participants have circled and joined hands begins to levitate off the ground. After the commotion, Margaret quietly reveals the true nature of the mysterious pounding: The daughters in the house want to move back to the city, and one has taken to making the loud noise in an attempt to convince her father that sinister forces are at work in the house.

Margaret and Tom teach the debunking of the various pseudosciences at a university (Some is made of the cutting of their department's funding to make up for the budding field of attempting to prove psychic phenomena and not the obvious reason), and in the classroom, Tom proceeds to show his students how one can raise a table into the air with the aid of one's shoe, the pressure of others' hands on the surface of the table, and, most importantly, the gullibility of those involved. Margaret seals the deal: In the decades she has spent investigating paranormal happenings, she has never come across a legitimate case.

One person came close. His name is Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a blind psychic who gained fame and fortune over 30 years ago with his displays of apparently real acts of the supernatural. Margaret was involved in a test of those abilities, and in seeming to know about her comatose, she almost believed him. The testing was ultimately inconclusive, and the mysterious death of his most ardent critic during a confrontation at one of Simon's shows led the psychic to retire. He's decided to make his comeback almost three decades later. Margaret wants to let him go, but Tom is determined to prove Simon is a phony, preying on the hope of vulnerable people.

Cortés' screenplay is filled with conversations about the nature of faith and the importance of an analytical mind that sound exactly like characters in a movie attempting to speak on those subjects without the trappings of trying to sound like human beings having a discussion or debate. Even the dialogue that reveals the characters is ham-fisted exposition (A scene between Margaret and Tom as they return from an assignment is particularly awkward), and ancillary characters serve no more than one function each. In one scene, a seemingly never-ending row of reporters refreshes the audience on everything that has come beforehand, including the stakes of Simon's test to determine if he is the genuine article (We had just seen the entire thing unfold in the format of an educational film), and Tom must narrate the significance of a sojourn to the set of a television news panel in which Margaret must take on several of her own naysayers as it happens.

The movie is clunky enough as it is, but then Cortés abandons the doctors' detective work for a string of possible psychic threats and assaults. Red Lights ends with much fury, and it only underscores how silly the whole misfortunate thing has become.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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