Red Lights first published by Little White Lies
“Why have you come here tonight? What are you hoping to see? Do you think I should surprise you? Do you think I should entertain you?”
These are the questions that blind psychic extraordinaire Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) poses near the end of Red Lights, both to his own immediate audience (in a packed theatre) and to the broader viewership of films just like Red Lights. Having retired in the mid Seventies after one of his chief detractors dropped dead mid-show, now Silver is returning to the stage, still very much the consummate showman, and giving his faithful fans exactly what they want.
Ranged against him are the sharp-minded (and eagle-eyed) psychologist Dr Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her young assistant, physicist Dr Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy). Both are, for their own private reasons, devoted to the scientific debunking of all supposed paranormal activities – yet where Buckley is keen to expose Silver as a slick charlatan, Matheson prefers to leave this ‘dangerous’ man alone, having had a confronting encounter with him decades earlier. When Matheson, however, is removed from the picture, Buckley will ignore everyone’s warnings and be driven, Oedipus-like, to pursue the diabolical Silver, blindly ignoring all the signs of something truly supernatural unfolding around him.
And so, like The Prestige, The Last Exorcism and The Awakening before it, Rodrigo Cortés’ Red Lights lifts the veil on the very machinery of its own artifice and trickery even as it invites us to lend our willing credulity to the whole miraculous show. Its dialectic between blind faith and open-eyed skepticism plays upon the clash of reason and desire in every viewer, asking us what we are hoping to see, warning us that seeing is not always believing, and then delivering the magical twist that deep down we craved all along, in a final coup de théâtre whose entertainment comes with a decidedly doubled edge.
‘Red lights’ is the term employed by Matheson and Buckley for “discordant notes, things that shouldn’t be there” – the tells that give away a psychic fraudster’s game. There are plenty of these in Cortés’ own film – strange moments of irrational irruption that demand explanation, but are repeatedly pushed to the margins of the viewer’s consciousness as the film keeps deftly changing the subject and distracting our attention with its own narrative momentum (and some impressive performances from the cast). As Buckley tells his student Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) after fooling her with a well-executed coin trick, “You can’t always trust your eyes – you did most of the magic by looking in the wrong place.” It is a lesson that Cortés himself takes to heart in his cinematic legerdemain.
Yet where his previous film, the claustrophobic thriller Buried, followed the strength of its convictions through to the bitter end, here Cortés appears to have suffered a crisis of confidence in the big reveal of his finale, overexplaining the solution with an unsubtle montage of ‘red lights’ in flashback that removes from the viewer any need, let alone desire, ever to watch the film a second time.
It is a pity, as, even after the film’s trick has been given away, a great deal of ambiguity remains, upon reflection, to be unraveled and supplemented. Matheson suggests that darkness is needed “to develop a photograph” – and it is in the darkness of the cinema, after the credits have finished rolling, that this film’s contradictions and paradoxes start to take on their own confronting form.
Anticipation: Another Buried treasure?
Enjoyment: Finely acted epistemological thriller let down by finale’s excessive exposition.
In Retrospect: More slippery than it first seems, with an ending over-explained but hardly over-rationalised.
© Anton Bitel