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October 5, 2012

Red Lights

by Franz Patrick


Red Lights (2012)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) visit a family that believes their new home is haunted. Seconds after Margaret and Tom step inside, loud banging can be heard from upstairs. The father insists that the noise has been so relentless, his family is unable to get a proper night’s sleep. Once everyone is acquainted, a seance is performed by a medium. The table shakes more violently as the medium’s connection to the spirits intensifies. Meanwhile, as a renowned psychologist and physicist, respectively, Dr. Matheson and Tom know that the seance is a complete sham. They make a living debunking so-called paranormal phenomena and this particular “haunted” house proves to be an easy case.

Written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés, “Red Lights” is unwaveringly confident as it moves from the idea that logic offers the best solution for mystifying problems to opening up the possibility that perhaps science, despite being a singularly powerful tool, does not have all the answers.

The interplay between Dr. Matheson and Tom is interesting in that although they believe in science, we are given a chance to understand the subtle differences of their beliefs as well as their approaches to solving problems. Although one’s status and level of experience is higher than the other, observing them interact feels fresh because the relationship feels mutualistic. There is a reason for us to keep watching because the surprises do not depend on scenes where they reveal channelers, healers, and the like as charlatans.

A darker turn is taken, however, when Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), one of the world’s most popular psychic who happens to be blind, suddenly comes out of retirement. Tom becomes desperate to prove to the world that Silver is simply a very talented performer. He does not understand why his mentor is reluctant to go after Silver given that if they are successful, not only will their department get more funding, their lives’ work will be recognized universally.

The screenplay has a few surprises. Instead of a typical showdown of mind games between Dr. Matheson and Silver, it is fascinating how neither share one scene together. Instead, through Dr. Matheson’s recollection, we are given background information about their history in the 70s which eventually explains why she does not want anything to do with the man. The second half is more deeply-footed in its ominous atmosphere, the use of music more sparing, and the images more bizarre. Its pacing, too, becomes more unpredictable. Quick in some, slow in others, and completely stagnant in what can potentially be Tom’s salvation, specifically his relationship with Sally (Elizabeth Olsen), a pupil of Dr. Matheson.

Coincidences pile up like dead autumn leaves as Tom, the lost sheep, obsessively sorts through them with hopes of finding a golden answer. Which “coincidences” does Silver induce and which ones do Tom creates for himself? Sometimes it is challenging to discern and, arguably, it may not even matter–at least for Tom. Do logical answers matter much to irrational minds?

Sharply photographed, smartly written, and well-directed, “Red Lights” brings to mind the beautiful contradictions in Chris Carter’s “The X-Files” and the paranoia of Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder.” It may not be as accessible as either but it certainly is as mesmerizing.

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