"Red Lights" culminates with a twist ending that doesn't just change everything that came previously, it actually negates the entirety of the film. Rather than leaving you in an awestruck state of "A-ha!" it's more likely to make you wonder in annoyance, "Really?"
There are actually two big character revelations, one of which isn't terribly hard to guess much earlier; the other, however, just rips gaping holes in the narrative. The story was pretty flimsy anyway, and never nearly as serious or important as writer-director Rodrigo Cortes seems to take it.
Cortes is the Spanish filmmaker who trapped Ryan Reynolds in a coffin for an hour and a half in the 2010 thriller "Buried," which enjoyed a surprising amount of critical acclaim. As tight and minimalist as that film was, "Red Lights" is a melodramatic, gimmicky mess, full of noisy scares and needless cuts. Cortes also edited "Red Lights" and he did so in manic, maddening fashion. A scene in which two characters are getting to know each other and flirting a bit over milkshakes at a diner features camerawork that flits about anxiously, when it theoretically should have been a moment of intimacy.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. There's so much to pick apart here, it's hard to know where to begin.
Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy star as professors at an unnamed university in an unnamed town. Wherever they are, the lighting is incredibly unflattering all the time, casting ordinarily attractive actors in a sickly, greenish pallor. Weaver's Margaret Matheson and Murphy's Tom Buckley specialize in debunking claims of paranormal activity. Skeptics to the core, they sneak up on supposed psychics in front of packed, enraptured audiences and expose them as frauds.
Margaret tells a student in her class near the film's start that in her 30 years in this business, "I have yet to witness a single miracle." You know this means a miracle is coming by the end.
Their latest challenge is actually an old adversary of Margaret's: celebrity psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a charismatic blind man who once played to sold-out theaters, but has retired from public appearances ever since the unusual death of one of his detractors.
For arbitrary reasons of plot, Simon is back – and we know this because every television, radio and newspaper in this unnamed town has wall-to-wall coverage of his return. Tom wants to take him down once and for all, but Margaret is more reluctant. Also along for the ride is Elizabeth Olsen in a thankless role as Margaret's student and Tom's sorta love interest. Olsen is just "the girl" here – it's a huge waste of a major young talent.
Exploring the ways in which psychics, healers, mediums and the like operate might have been an intriguing topic for a film. "Red Lights" comes close to achieving a couple of worthwhile moments, namely when Simon allows another professor (Toby Jones) to subject his skills to an official examination. There's also a scene in which Tom stealthily confronts Simon at his hidden lair which feels intense in the moment – De Niro dials it down and gives one long, mysterious monologue – but, in retrospect, makes no sense.
Like the showmen he offers up for scrutiny here, Cortes seems more interested in fooling us with sleight of hand, distractions and mumbo jumbo, when a little substance and consistency might have worked some real magic.
"Red Lights," a Millennium Entertainment release, is rated R for language and some violence. Running time: 113 minutes. One star out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G – General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG – Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 – Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R – Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 – No one under 17 admitted.