Re:View – ‘Red Lights’

The Arts

Not to be confused with the excellent French thriller ‘Feux Rouges’, this film by Rodrigo Cortes, director of the nailbiter ‘Buried’, was unfairly dismissed at the box office. It’s a shame because, although flawed, it tackles something rarely seen onscreen, the flipside of shows like ‘Fringe’ and ‘The X Files’, wherein the paranormal is shown to exist beneath the surface of everyday life.

Red Lights are the term for anomalies that that flag up signs that something is wrong. In a nameless (read Canadian) university town, Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy are a sceptical paranormal debunker and physicist respectively, travelling around the country unmasking fakes and finding the real reasons why the gullible are led to believe in an afterlife. Opposing them is Toby Young, whose unit finds proof of psychic abilities through flawed, lazy research. And against this background, Robert De Niro looms as the world’s most respected psychic healer, planning a return to the stage after decades.

The question is, will the team go after him, or could it be that De Niro really does possess some kind of ability? After all, the last time he confronted Weaver she was presented with partial proof of his talents.

The film offers tremendous pleasures – a really meaty role for Weaver, whose whip-crack smarts conceal vulnerability over her son’s long-gestating illness, and another for De Niro, exuding menace and something less readable as the man who may hold the key to science’s greatest secret. But it’s Murphy’s film, giving an uptight performance that makes sense in retrospect.

For there is a big twist in the conclusion – and it’s this that prevents the film from being an unqualified success. It’s not what kept audiences away, though – that disinterest was down to the debunking of myths. People want to believe, not be shown the man behind the curtain. When books about the Bermuda Triangle came out in the seventies they were devoured in their hundreds, but the most important of these slipped out without any attention – it was a volume that debunked the mythology around the triangle by examining pilot logs in detail and nailing the misreported cases as human error.

There are other flaws – would the arrival of a psychic really garner daily front-pages headlines? Even so, there’s much to enjoy; proper storytelling with decent, thought-through speeches and conversations for the leads, an original take on a stale subject, some smart red herrings and even smarter explanations, and an exploration of the gap between magicians and psychics.

Still, you come back to an oddly random action scene you feel has been shoehorned in by a studio worried about an overly talky film, and that twist, where it’s hard not to conclude that this is one hoop too many for a brave audience to jump through. All in all a noble failure, with credit due to all concerned, once again proves that films like this are a damned sight more pleasurable than guaranteed hits that aim low.

7 comments on “Re:View – ‘Red Lights’”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    “Red Lights” is also the name of a Georges Simenon “hard novel” set on a road trip to Maine. It’s one of his U.S. novels. I have really read a lot of Simeon and have a partial shelf to go, but you can learn a great deal from his work. He was like a gem cutter taking a character’s story and studying his/her surface and depths, and then suddenly tapping with a sharp edge to cut a facet to view inside. (I’m a bit purple today, so let’s say the stone he cuts is an amthyst.)
    I suggest reading no more than three of his novels at a time, which follows the lead of the green Penguin collections.

  2. J F Norris says:

    Dan –

    The movie Chris mentions in the very first sentence is based on the Simenon novel.

  3. Dan Terrell says:

    Thanks. At first I thought it might be, but then reading Chris’ precis didn’t quite sound like it. A paperback house is reprinting the “best” of the Simenon non-mystery novels.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    A Canadian university town? We have cities with universities in them (our area has two real ones) but I don’t think we have any towns which exist because of the university, except perhaps Mt. Allison University in New Brunswick. That would make a pretty good setting, too.

  5. glasgow1975 says:

    Helen I think ‘nameless (read Canadian)’ just means Canada standing in for America as it so often does in the movie/tv filming industry. . .

  6. admin says:

    Indeed, Glasgow – whenever cheap US films want to give the feeling of a urban isolation they head to the kind of anonymous Canadian city that appears to have no identifying marks of any kind. I searched the shots in ‘Red Lights’ for clues but found nothing!

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Betcha a Canadian could recognize some of it. I’m not sure which part of that should irk me the most: “cheap US films” “anonymous Canadian city” or “no identifying marks”. (stomps off in a sulk.)

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