Skepticism is championed until it’s suddenly and inexplicably not in Red Lights, Rodrigo Cortés’ muddled follow-up to Buried. Unlike that prior effort, an efficiently compact and constrained thriller about a man who awakens inside an interred coffin, Cortes’ latest is a sprawling mess both narratively and thematically. It takes as its focus two scientists, Margaret (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom (Cillian Murphy), whose careers are split between lecturing about the non-existence of paranormal activity and going out into the field to debunk charlatans who claim to hear voices and commune with the dead. Casting Weaver as a literal ghost buster is apparently meant as a wink-wink joke, but more laughable is the story’s basic reality, in which Margaret and Tom are depicted as myth-discrediting Indiana Jones types and Simon Silver (Robert De Niro)—a famed blind psychic who apparently has the ability to give his harshest critics heart attacks—is treated not as a Vegas-style novelty act but as a renowned pseudo-deity whose every move, after emerging from decades-old retirement, is breathlessly covered by the national media.
That anyone takes Silver seriously as a vessel for superhuman power seems preposterous, and though a grimacing and bellowing De Niro tries to exude larger-than-life command in early scenes (which also include a weird flashback montage featuring Eugenio Mira as the young De Niro), the straight-faced elevation of Silver into a legitimate phenomenon immediately uproots the material from any sense of realism. That’s a considerable problem given that Red Lights is, at least initially, focused on the disbelief of Margaret, who won’t pull the plug on her comatose son because she doesn’t think an afterlife exists, and who’s dedicated to exposing those like Silver as frauds. Cortés’ plot is best when it concentrates on those debunking methods, most specifically Margaret and Tom using radio-intercepting technology to listen in on the communication between a mind-reading performer and his staff, who feed him intel on the names, addresses and personal tragedies of audience members. In that and in early arguments between Margaret and her pro-paranormal colleague Paul (Toby Jones), the film is, if nothing else, at least clear-sighted about its perspective on the fallacy of paranormal activity, which Margaret claims can always be revealed as a scam through the identification of telltale “red light” clues that explain the seemingly incomprehensible.
The fact that Red Lights’ action doesn’t operate in a recognizable universe, however, is a constant problem. It doesn’t help that, when not indulging in showy camera pans around his main characters, Cortés paces his material awkwardly, conveying considerable information in oblique ways—for example, imparting news of a character’s death with a serious of scenes that never have anyone articulate what’s actually taken place—that boast a distracting self-consciousness. That’s still a minor shortcoming, however, in light of later twists, which concern not only unnecessary peripheral strands (like a relationship between Tom and Elizabeth Olsen’s student that serves no purpose except to help further a couple of climactic plot points), but also feature gimmicky surprises at direct odds with the film’s prior attitude toward Margaret and Simon.
Cortés crafts an atmosphere of malevolent forces working beneath everyday veneers, but by the time Tom confronts Simon in a strange hotel room where the psychic emerges from behind a red curtain to pontificate about who-knows-what, Red Lights has tipped into half-baked David Lynch territory, with more than a few M. Night Shyamalan surprises thrown in for good measure. Murphy, Weaver and De Niro all strive in vain to bring weight to roles that amount to only shallow signposts for dull ideas. And, it must be said, increasingly ludicrous ones as well, as the third act takes a steep dive into preposterousness, full of computer monitors and stage lights exploding, auditoriums shaking with earthquake-level violence, birds fatally crashing into windows, and other wannabe-spooky events supposedly brought about by psychokinesis. Explanations for these occurrences eventually lead to Tom, yet in a manner that seems hopelessly tacked on—this despite a late flurry of flashbacks that attempt to reconfigure our perception of what’s come before—and, more to the point, absurd beyond belief. By embracing the very notions it had spent the prior 100 minutes revealing as a sham, the film reveals itself as a cheap, unconvincing con.
Director: Rodrigo Cortés
Writer: Rodrigo Cortés
Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Cillian Murphy, Elizabeth Olsen
Release Date: July 13, 2012 (limited)