The tag line for Rodrigo Cortes’ feature “Red Lights” asks “How much do you want to believe?” One could say this question applies to the viewers of this ambitious, uneven paranormal thriller as much as it does to its main characters. How willing are you to stretch?
Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy star as Margaret Matheson and Tom Buckley, a pair of university scientific researchers who debunk paranormal phenomena. When famous psychic Simon Silver, played by Robert DeNiro, comes out of retirement after 30 years, Buckley determines to investigate him despite Matheson’s warnings. Elizabeth Olsen also stars as an undergrad at Matheson’s university who becomes Buckley’s partner and lover.
Cortes’ last feature, “Buried”, was a skillful, claustrophobic one-character story which took place entirely within the coffin of a man buried alive. Cortes showed a flair for creative solutions and staging, and a knack for drawing out a good performance. Here, he has a strong cast to work with, with Murphy and Weaver especially strong. Weaver has a particularly gripping monologue about her past dealings with Silver, and Murphy brings heart and intelligence to a challenging lead. Though Olsen is wasted in a supporting role, the undercurrent of menace that has been DeNiro’s stock-in-trade for so long is used to mostly good effect, and he underplays admirably until the overwrought finale.
“Red Lights” presents difficult questions about perception, doubt and faith, and is occasionally successful in exploring these ideas. The film is strongest in its quietest moments, when scenes are driven by character and dialogue. Cortes’ script gives a real weight to the underlying emotional needs of Buckley and Matheson, and he shows a gratifying faith in the intelligence of the viewer to make connections that are not exactly spelled out.
But the open-ended, open-hearted nature of much of the material is often overwhelmed by some predictable shocks and a bevy of loose ends. Why does Silver come out of retirement? What is that scene in Silver’s dimly-lit apartment all about? (And why the scratchy, 1920’s-newsreel sound effect on the lab footage of Silver’s test? Was Rudy Vallee the sound guy?) The twist ending is robbed of much of its impact by the needlessly violent, almost cartoonish fight scene that precedes it, and by the illogical histrionics of Buckley and Silver’s final confrontation.
So how willing are you to stretch? “Red Lights” presents interesting characters in intermittently interesting situations. Cortes’ script has moments of perception and grace, but is often dwarfed and drained by the larger scaled scenes. There is authenticity in the technical detail of the film, but that detail is used to hollow effect. “Red Lights” is a frustratingly uneven experience, but if you reach a little and ride out the weaker scenes, you’ll find some rewarding moments.
“Red Lights” is presented in 16:9, 2.35 anamorphic widescreen. The DVD transfer looks good, with the wide-ranging lighting and rain effects shown to particular advantage.
The audio track is recorded in both 5.1 digital surround, and 2.0 stereo. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish. No notable problems with the sound presentation.
–an interview reel with Weaver, Murphy and a disinterested DeNiro discussing their characters in predictably vague, promo reel terms.
–an interview with director and writer Rodrigo Cortes, somewhat more interesting than the cast interviews
–a making-of featurette with little to say
–a very short collection of b-roll and behind-the-scenes footage
–a digital copy of the film
Cortes’ follow-up to “Buried” is not as fully realized or creative, but its ambitious subject and emotional undercurrents offer some reward. An intriguingly uneven experience.