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Zimbio Review - 'Red Lights'

From left: Cillian Murphy, Robert De Niro. (Photos by Getty Images, Nostromo Pictures)
The Bottom Line
Should you see it?

The best is still to come from writer/director Cortes, but Red Lights offers strong performances and a compelling if somewhat muddled story.
Writer/director Rodrigo Cortes deserves credit for his ambitious story set in the world of paranormal activity and parapsychology. While not exactly an awards-caliber film, Red Lights is an original, offering a much different point of view into the world of psychics and the paranormal. The subject is most often utilized within the framework of horror stories to scare the daylights out of audiences, but Cortes takes a different approach. He ponders the subject practically which gives the film a sharp edge.

Sigourney Weaver plays Margaret Matheson, a professor who has dedicated her life to debunking the supposed existence of ghosts and psychics. She is an expert in "red lights," the tricks used to make people believe in the paranormal. The film begins with Matheson and her assistant, Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), visiting a house where the loud banging in the attic can only mean one thing: I hear dead people... This scene and first act of Red Lights is engaging stuff. It's fun watching Weaver play the skeptic as the family she's investigating all act like they're in a normal horror movie.

The real plot, however, involves a "legendary" celebrity psychic, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), who retired from the psychic game twenty or so years ago after his chief critic died mysteriously. When Silver returns for a comeback tour, it energizes Buckley who convinces Matheson they must debunk this fraud of all frauds.

While toeing the line between paranormal hokum and downright faith, Cortes' script never really gets its hands dirty. In a flashback sequence, Matheson is humiliated by Silver during a televised round table as he makes her stumble regarding her conviction that faith is a fool's game. By definition, faith is an unprovable concept so the easy argument is the one that can never be verified. Instead of eviscerating this notion, Cortes accepts it.

Red Lights lags during its middle-half as Buckley becomes romantically-involved with a student (Elizabeth Olsen) and Silver's comeback gains in popularity (and revenue). The best scene in the film is a study of Silver by the Scientific Paranormal Research Center (led by the fawning Toby Jones) if only because it's a highly pragmatic moment in a movie that seems to be heading into the world of the ludicrous. The Center conducts a number of tests on Silver to verify that his ESP is for real and the findings are... well, you can decide for yourself what they are.

De Niro gives Silver the gravitas warranted by such a controversial and cult-like character. His performance is a strange but correct combination of the corniess of John Edward, the showmanship of David Copperfield, and the inexplicable popularity of televangelists like Joel Osteen. Silver is supposed to be a respected psychic but that term is an oxymoron so the entire character is fighting an uphill battle. To his credit, De Niro does about as much as possible to give Simon Silver the credibility the film wants him to have.

Cortes shows a deft hand with this, his first feature not located entirely within a wooden box (Buried). Shot in Barcelona and Toronto, the story and characters are pushed by a palpable intensity throughout the film, a credit to Cortes and his editing team. Some of the effects used in the film are non-sensical, but one scene - a fight in a bathroom - is impressively conceived and recalls the surprising and overly violent sensibilities of Martin Scorsese.

Red Lights ends with a considerable twist that should confound most viewers. It's a thinly sketched conclusion that does a disservice to many of the themes the film has already built. It's a mystery, but maybe that's the point.

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