The best things about Sundance from the perspective of a would-be screenwriter? The networking opportunities and the post-movie Q&A sessions. Both pictures I’ve had a chance to see here so far have closed on these, and both have been incredibly fun/educational to sit through and partake in. Today’s, for Rodrigo Cortes’ Red Lights (More on it shortly) featured both the director and the three leads; Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy and Elizabeth Olsen. They were all quite personable, if in very different ways – Cortes is a very charismatic host with a knack for directing audience attention where he wants it, Weaver is incredibly funny (a question about how working on a movie that deals very heavily with the supposed supernatural had affected everyone’s perception of it led to her mentioning that she would love to learn more about extraterrestrial life if it is out there, although said life “might not really want to meet her.”), Murphy is erudite and charming if very quiet and Olsen is self-effacing and very good at building on conversations to take them in interesting directions. In short? Getting to hear them talk was a lot of fun, and I got to learn a bit about how directors and actors work together in developing characters and their relationships with both each other and the plot.
Speaking of that, from here on I’d like to talk a bit about Red Lights, a picture I liked quite a lot, but one that is not without several major flaws.
First things first, if you do not care for ambiguity, you probably will not enjoy Red Lights. Everything is ambiguous, and intentionally so. The central premise: two professors who specialize in debunking so-called paranormal activity, Tom Buckley and Margaret Matheson(Murphy and Weaver) must deal with the reemergence of a famed psychic named Simon Silver(Robert De Niro) who went into retirement 30 years earlier after the mysterious death of his most prominent critic. Silver’s powers might be fake or might be real, but either way he is a manipulative, dangerous man and both Buckley and Matheson suffer at his hands. The performances are all extremely good, particularly Murphy’s, whose descent into obsession and borderline insanity is wonderfully unsettling.
But it is here that the first of Red Lights‘ problems emerges; as good as this cast is, they are not given very much to do that is not directly related to the plot. The Raid‘s character work may have been very simple, but those characters read as fully formed people because much of their development came for its own sake. Red Lights takes its cast to the assorted dark corners of their psyches and souls, but always because the plot demands it – Elizabeth Olsen in particular seems to be in the movie to give Buckley a girlfriend. Her scenes with Murphy do have some charm and sadness to them depending on when in the picture, but that is mostly attributable to the strong acting. Otherwise they feel a bit rote, and frustratingly, Olsen pretty much drops out of the picture in its final act before returning for a subplot that serves only to set up the climax’s big revelation.
Olsen’s disappearance and then reemergence is also symptomatic of another issue I have with Red Lights, its lack of quality quiet moments. The picture’s big moments; the confrontations between Buckley and Matheson over whether or not to investigate Silver, Silver’s monologue to an increasingly vengeful, furious Buckley and the finale at Silver’s performance are all very, very well done. Cortes’ use of sudden shifts in lighting and abrupt cuts in the soundtrack during these moments work to highlight each character’s various instabilities, foibles and perceptions. But rarely is there any genuine peace – Buckley and Matheson have some good banter here and there(particularly regarding Buckley’s fondness for daytime talk shoes), the type that two colleagues might exchange over the course of day-to-day work, but it is always frustratingly brief. This is not helped by several very clunky moments of exposition where a videotape or character with the requisite knowledge will literally stand around and monologue to whoever happens to be listening. For a film primarily about exposing artificiality, Red Lights‘ execution can be maddeningly artificial.
But despite those very real problems, I really like Red Lights. I care about the characters enough to be scared for them as things take continual turns for the worse, and those turns are themselves very frightening. There is a moment about halfway through when Buckley is attempting to follow Silver’s auto convoy and has to break very suddenly because of a truck that Silver’s car should not have been able to avoid but somehow did. It’s both shocking and satisfyingly ambiguous. Did Silver force the truck to move in front of Buckley, or in his increasing obsession did Buckley just not look where he was driving? With that ambiguity comes a sense of dread that increases alongside the former as Red Lights builds to a climax. This climax is everything good and bad about Red Lights summed up into about ten minutes. Great acting, but overly grand dramatic gestures. Incredibly built-up suspense, but clumsy foreshadowing and outright irritating exposition. And as for the result of the climax? I cannot say anything for spoilers, but while I loved it, I can totally get why it could ruin the movie for another viewer.
As uneven as it is in its execution, I really enjoyed Red Lights. Some of the turns it takes in its story are quite original, as are the ways its horror aspects are implemented. The characters are driven by their actors, but fortunately those actors are doing a really fine job of acting. It’s a cool, thoughtful little horror film, one worth giving attention to.