It’s apparent from the pre-title sequence of Rodrigo Cortes’ latest film Red Lights that the story line will undoubtedly be building towards some sort of grand twist ending. While that opening scene and much of what follows is totally passable and at times downright entertaining thanks to Cortes’ ability to create a spooky atmosphere and some well honed performances, once the actual twist comes, it’s so incoherent that it derails the film entirely, staining everything that came before it.
Margaret Matheson (Signourney Weaver) and Thomas Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are a pair of university based mythbusters specializing in debunking fraudulent psychics. Buckley, whose detecting abilities are starting to surpass those of his older boss, has deeply personal reasons for taking on this particular job, and to make a splash he wants to expose one of the world’s most renowned and flamboyant purveyors of ESP. The blind Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro) has never been proven to be a fraud despite a somewhat suspect disappearance in the 70s and 80s following the sudden death of his biggest critic at the time. Buckley ignores his boss warnings to stay away from the headache Silver would cause him, and he presses on with the help of one of a students-slash-love interest (Elizabeth Olsen) when things start to get out of his control.
Cortes (Buried) does a fine job in terms of increasing up the tension of his story through spooky, off kilter camera angles and appropriately darkened mood lighting. Everything looks and moves about as well as it should for the most part, which makes it even more of a shame that as a writer, Cortes ultimately ends up shooting his own movie in the foot. He’s a very technically proficient filmmaker, but the script could have used another draft to work out all its problems.
As a team, Weaver and Murphy work incredibly well together. Their dynamic isn’t just one of a teacher and student, but a surrogate mother and son. Their banter feels unforced and their working relationship is professionally staged. As their main foil, DeNiro seems energized by the material, once again putting in good work in a mediocre movie, which could be a welcome sign of recovery for an actor that was in danger of lapsing very easily into parody. Also nice is Toby Jones, as a skittish rival university researcher that’s better funded than Margaret and Thomas, but who wants to prove everything about psychic phenomena to be true.
It’s hard to talk about the film’s stellar nosedive without spoiling it entirely, but it can be more easily explained than the ways that people can make tables levitate and how spoons can be bent from afar. There are actually two huge twists, one that happens at the midway point of the film that works wonderfully and the one that closes everything out that reeks of desperation. It’s an ending that’s telegraphed somewhat obviously if the audience has been paying attention, but the actual dynamics and motivations behind the finale are never made clear. They make absolutely zero sense, and not in the ambiguous sort of way that suggests that the very phenomena they were investigating should be real. It negates pretty much everything that came before it and renders the rest of the film around it as useless because going by this twist, nothing that came before it could have ever happened. It kills the film’s own sense of internal logic and for a film that was previously on a smarter track, it’s completely inexcusable.