Sundance Review: Rodrigo Cortes' 'Red Lights'
Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro star in a muddled thriller
The 2012 Sundance Film Festival slogan is "Look Again," a piece of advice that has caused amusement and confusion for members of the press whose headshots are glued onto our badges adjacent only to the word "Again," as if Robert Redford himself were looking at each of us and saying, "Seriously? That guy? Again?"
Cheap juxtapositional humor aside, I gave the "Look Again" banner extra thought after it appeared on the screen following Friday (January 20) night's world premiere of Rodrigo Cortes' "Red Lights."
The follow-up to Cortes' "Buried," a conceptually tricky thriller which went from hot Sundance title to theatrical non-event in record time two years ago, "Red Lights" is a generally infuriating and occasionally intriguing muddle of a movie that spins wildly out of control in its final half-hour, climaxing in a two-minute montage of voiceover and exposition that either does or doesn't turn the rest of the movie upside-down in maddening fashion.
The movie ended. The credits rolled. I was sitting in the back of the Eccles Theatre scratching my head and the words "Look Again" came up on the screen.
Some viewers are definitely going to find "Red Lights" worthy of a second viewing, particularly in the aftermath of that peculiar ending. As for me? Asked to look again, I'm afraid I'm going to take a pass. Like I said, "Red Lights" is occasionally intriguing, but I don't think the things that intrigued me had anything to do with the main text or impact of the movie. That doesn't make them less interesting and I'm pretty sure that "Red Lights" is a fascinating failure -- and possibly an oddball cult film in-the-making -- but a failure none-the-less.
Full review after the break...
"Red Lights" stars Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Margaret Matheson, an ultra-rational college professor who travels around the country with physicist sidekick Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) debunking paranormal phenomena. Armed with logic and science, Matheson and Buckley take the miraculous -- whether ghosts or extra-sensory powers -- and render it comprehensible.
[If I hadn't discussed last night's review of "The Queen of Versailles" in terms of the "Real Housewives" phenomenon, I'd probably get all "Ghosthunters" on "Red Lights," but I can't compare every Sundance movie to a reality TV show if I want to retain credibility.]
Complication comes in the form of Matheson's longtime adversary Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a legendary blind psychic who emerges from a 30 year absence armed with seemingly every available power that writer-director Cortes could think of: Silver's a mentalist and a healer and he bends spoons and develops photographs with his brain.
If you've seen movies or TV shows before, it won't surprise you to know that these two professional skeptics are about to experience something that's going to put their view of the world to the ultimate test.
The movie's title refers to the tell-tale signs of fraud that Matheson and Buckley have been trained to look for and "Red Lights" is very much about ways of perception, whether the perception of its two main characters or the perception of the audience. When you make a film about sleight of hand and hoaxes, you're invariably delivering some commentary on the cinematic process, delving into ideas of spectacle, misdirection and distraction. In this respect, I found myself comparing the approach of "Red Lights" to Christopher Nolan's "The Prestige." The Sundance "Look Again" motto couldn't be more appropriate for the construction of the movie, assuming you're willing to weed through some cumbersome storytelling.
For its first 90 minutes, Cortes' script keeps repeating its core binaries in one expositional scene after another. Magic versus Science! Faith versus Reason! Certainty versus Doubt! Characters are either lecturing or being lectured to, with small-talk at a minimum. Because it's almost all talk, Cortes has to resort to one cheap jump-scare after another, just to keep the audience engaged. Slamming door! Crashing bird! Tall black man! None of it's even slightly scary, but I'll bet you could cut together a trailer for "Red Lights" that could fool a viewer or two.
Anybody who has seen "Buried" knows that Cortes is extremely gifted when it comes to creating the sensation of movement in scenes that would otherwise be potentially claustrophobic. In one scene, Cortes stages a panel TV discussion in which Weaver's character has to defend her rationalist point of view against three members of Simon Silver's camp and the camera rushes dazzlingly from character to character, making a mockery of the contained nature of the televisual space on your typical "Meet the Press" knockoff.
This is one of those strange things about "Red Lights" that worked for me: Cortes has created an alternate reality in which local newscasts and papers are obsessed by the philosophical conflict between a populist psychic and an ivory tower academic. It's not an entirely fictional universe, because Criss Angel is referenced, but Simon Silver has a profile that's closer to that of wildly popular televangelist, rather than a magician and Matheson's profile goes well beyond the pop culture eggheads who play the buzzkills on cable specials about UFOs. Then again, Matheson teaches psychology at a school where here specialty is under siege from the Scientific Paranormal Research Center, a nearly-legitimate department fronted by Toby Jones' Paul Shackleton.
And where exactly is this university? Well, I don't quite know. That is, in fact, my favorite part of "Red Lights." The movie was shot in Barcelona, but also in Toronto, while it's set in neither city. So just as the culture is foreign to our actual culture, the urban space isn't connected to any one city. I hate to compare "Red Lights" to another Christopher Nolan joint, but it's like how Gotham City has become a franken-city, cobbled together from several locations, but tied exclusively to none. This frees Cortes, cinematographer Xavi Gimenez and production designer Anton Laguna from the bounds of any one geography. From Matheson and Buckley's science lair to the theater environments dominated by Silver, "Red Lights" covers a recognizable-yet-alien terrain.
The actors struggle not to get upstaged by Cortes' world-building. Weaver is sturdy, but her character is all too familiar and despite a couple sympathy-driving details, she never quite escapes from her voice-of-reason box. The movie may begin as Matheson's story, but the characters steered by passion quickly steal the show. Murphy starts off pitched as a match to Weaver, but before long he's pounding tables, shouting and grabbing his head in growing outrage. Also turning up the volume steadily is De Niro, whose initial underplaying comes across as curious. After all, who would have guessed that De Niro + Blindness would equal Muted? Fortunately, the last act of the movie is one Simon Silver monologue after another, as the character's attempt to assert his identity takes on a Hamlet-y aspect, leading to a joyfully hammy combination of purple prose and an actor unlikely to be limited by a young filmmaker like Cortes.
By the end of "Red Lights," De Niro is as broad as I've ever seen him go, which is impressive when you remember we're talking about the star of "Cape Fear" and "Rocky & Bullwinkle" here. There's an interpretation of "Red Lights" that combines De Niro's largesse with Murphy's theatricality and Cortes' corny jump-scares and assumes that there's some winking and nudging going on, but everything that comes before is so earnest that it's hard to accept that as the director's intent.
["Red Lights" also co-stars last year's Sundance darling Elizabeth Olsen, who mostly gets to be cute and character-free as one of Matheson and Buckley's students who ends up assisting with their investigations and... nothing else. Nobody bothered to write a part for Olsen, but she must have gotten a week or two in Barcelona, which works out a superior compensation for a lack of nuance.]
With a running time of nearly two hours, endless repetition of the same points and that darned ending I can't discuss, "Red Lights" could almost get away with being a work-in-progress. It doesn't have distribution yet and the right acquiring company would almost have to mandate some trims and adjustments. Cortes is very smart and thoughtful in person and I can imagine him returning to this cut in a few months and realizing that the movie he really wanted to make is buried -- at 3:20 a.m. on two hours sleep, I neither intend puns, nor correct them once they're already there -- deep inside.
So call me when "Red Lights" is a lean-and-mean 95 minutes and when the ending requires less spelling out for it to make sense.
Then, I'll look again.