Don't Stop for Cortés' Frustrating, Overblown 'Red Lights'

Directed by: Rodrigo Cortés, Runtime: 113 minutes
Grade: D

There's a scene in Rodrigo Cortés' Red Lights that captures the essence of what this film really should've focused on: a conversation between two doctors about a "successful" experiment in testing the psychic/telekinetic ability of a patient. During their banter, Dr. Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones) answers the aggressive inquiries of a hardcore skeptic and paranormal debunker, Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) -- about the lighting in the room, the distance the subject stood from the tester, and the transparency of flash cards meant to challenge their foresight. With a few steps of intuitive analysis and only a few sentences spoken, Dr. Matheson swiftly dismantles the scenario as a false, exploitable design with a somewhat obvious flaw. The film needed more of this type of analysis of how con-artists replicate the paranormal by exploiting weaknesses of those watching, but unfortunately most of this overblown, stiff quasi-supernatural thriller veers far away from those traces of nuance.

The events of Red Lights instead get much grander in scale as it goes along, where the dynamic duo of teacher/debunker Dr. Matheson and her assistant, Dr. Tom Buckley (Cilian Murphy), investigate situation after situation that suggests a presence of paranormal/metaphysical activity. Both harbor their own reasons for not placing faith in things beyond reality; Dr. Matheson's son remains in a coma after an accident, while Dr. Buckley's family was led astray by a psychic who fed them false information. Most of their "opponents" are small potatoes, cases that can be defrauded by simple psychology or electronic devices that track audible signals, but there's one man whom Dr. Matheson views as a dangerous manipulator who shouldn't be tampered with: Simon Silver, a telekinetic wunderkind who has inexplicably come out of decades-long hiding to reassert his talents.

An ominous tone surrounds Silver's presence, as if he's the cog in the machine that'll disrupt Dr. Matheson and Dr. Buckley's outlook on the paranormal, but it's unsure whether it's out of fear of his manipulative abilities, or if it's because he might be the real deal. Rodrigo Cortés' direction thrives on that mystery, where the events witnessed take equal strides to both reinforce a disbelief in the paranormal and suggest that something beyond the norm surrounds their presence. Machines fizzle out, birds fly into windows, and haunting dreams form a disquieting atmosphere that demands speculation over the blind man in the sunglasses; all the parlor tricks that Dr. Matheson and Dr. Buckley demystify with science don't compare to this, feeding into the event many years ago that drove Silver into retirement. There's a secret there that Cortés wants to reveal, but he keeps it under lock-and-key for as long as he can.

That lasting mystery would've been fine if Red Lights maintained a legitimately unsettling atmosphere along with it, however Cortés' direction reveals that he might be better off creating tension in the limited space of a coffin, and with as few actors as possible. In Buried, a phenomenal piece of claustrophobic terror, he's able to create the illusion of a world outside the confines of a tight space that's encroaching on someone's emotional stability, which suggests that he'd be able to execute a psychological thriller about debunking and questioning whether metaphysical elements could be real or not. The tone he creates here, however, is overpoweringly stilted and unnatural, getting worse the more people get involved; scenes at a "haunted" home feature forced, wooden victims, while a hypnotist in a theater wouldn't convince anyone with his hokey magician theatrics and drawn-out pauses. These scenes needed more veracity, to reveal more genuine vigor behind the work that Dr. Matheson and Dr. Buckley do -- and instead they're tedious to behold, full of bogus gotcha moments.

Eventually, Buckley elects to take on Silver as a case, THE case to investigate, taking Red Lights to a more personal level as he explores the history and mind of an exceedingly powerful manipulator, digging into how he's able to do what he does. But Cortés can't properly sketch out the characters involved or properly tap into the talent at his fingertips, leaving these doctors and manipulators as exaggerated typecasts playing a hollow and agitating game of wits. Sigourney Weaver and Cilian Murphy do what they can to create a quirky bond between Dr. Matheson and Dr. Buckley as jaded colleagues with a purpose, while an ominous DeNiro tries to channel a bit of his performance in Angel Heart for Silver. And Elizabeth Olsen is ... there, as a student of Dr. Matheson (and a love interest to Dr. Buckley, a situation that gets kinda swept under the rug), yet the potency he's expressed in Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House are wasted in a generic role that gives her nothing to do.

Fundamentally, the film becomes abrasive and negatively provocative before it draws one into its mystery, where scenes sketching out Dr. Buckley's burgeoning mania push the envelope and come out of left field. And it builds to a twist at the end of Red Lights that "makes sense" of the burgeoning metaphysical instability, a M. Night Shyamalan-like curtail-pull -- but it's a token reveal that revels in the opportunity to go back across the film, re-present scenes, and whisper "gotcha" after every one. Perhaps it's because it comes after the cumbersome, unpleasant paranormal procedural that doesn't leave much of a mark once all's said and done. Strangely enough, it's still the smallest of moments, such as that conversation between Dr. Matheson and Dr. Shackleton at the beginning, which leave the strongest imprints after all the hectic goings-on that Cortés offers. With how aggressive Red Lights gets, that's not a good thing.

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