The truth may (or may not) be out there for Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy as two paranormal researchers committed to unearthing fraudulent practitioners of ESP in this new metaphysical thriller from Buried director Rodrigo Cortés.
Weaver is physicist lecturer Margaret Matheson who, along with her assistant Tom Buckley (Murphy), teaches a class which covers the debunking of paranormal activity by unearthing the (sometimes extremely elaborate) subterfuge used. She’s a staunch disbeliever in all things supernatural, and a personal tragedy has only helped to reinforce this viewpoint.
The colleagues clash when Buckley is adamant about investigating the elusive world-renowned psychic, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro). Matheson’s last run in with him resulted in an exchange which almost shattered her belief system, but despite her strong reservations and even when strange, unexplainable incidents begin to take shape around him, Buckley presses on. Could Silver genuinely possess the psychic powers the two have been working tirelessly at discrediting?
Before it stumbles towards the end of the final act, Red Lights is a pretty effective B-movie. Spanish director Cortés shows a restraint with the material and mostly refrains from using those clichéd over-the-top visual flourishes often deployed in similar genre efforts. And with fine performances from Murphy and (in particular) Weaver adding the requisite weight, the film unfolds in a leisurely, intriguing way.
With the mystery element gaining traction throughout, it’s all the more frustrating that the end twist, although an interesting reveal, is delivered in a contrived and hokey manner, eliciting shrugs when it should have inspired awe. To make matters worse, it’s then followed by a series of flashback montages from earlier in the film, doing all the unnecessary lifting work for the viewer. It’s as if Cortés doesn’t have faith in the audience’s ability to put together the pieces of the puzzle themselves.
The film also suffers from the miscasting of De Niro as the famous psychic and target of Buckley’s obsession. It’s a role which needs a command of the theatrical and a good sprinkling of ham, neither of which is really suited to De Niro’s style of acting. As a result, he looks ill at ease trying to conjure up the impression of showmanship while the spotlight is (literally) on him, and there’s merely an ambiguity about him where there should have been a compelling mystery.
Two young upcoming stars (Elizabeth Olsen and Submarine’s Craig Roberts) as students of the physicists are not given a whole lot to do either, particularly Roberts, who crops up towards the end to assist Buckley as he frantically sifts through footage of a university-administered test on Silver.
Despite these grumbles, Red Lights is by no means a disaster. Cortés has fun with his odd couple team early on in the film, and their ghost-busting exploits resemble a more grounded Moulder and Scully investigation (reinforced by the X-files-style opening credits). The dark, shadowy look of the film also has an interesting non-Hollywood feel about it (the majority of filming took place in Barcelona). It’s a pity that the film’s own sleight of hand is finally fumbled and awkwardly exposed.