'Red Lights': Stop!
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Paranormal investigators Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) spend their time finding the fraudulent in every outbreak of the weird and inexplicable. "We look for red lights," Weaver's perpetually pinch-faced prof lectures her class. "Discordant notes ... things that shouldn't be there." And there you have it, the spot-on definition of "Red Lights," a discordant thing that shouldn't be there, or here, or anywhere. Stultifying from start to finish, this mess of a movie is supremely incoherent -- plot-, dialogue- and character-wise. Not one moment is visually arresting or suspenseful or even connected to the one that follows. All the players are dour, affectless, implausible. Even the climactic twist fails to shake you out of your stupor; so confused and clumsy is its presentation that one of the characters has to keep explaining ... and explaining ... what just happened.
Keep in mind, for future reference, that Rodrigo Cortés -- writer, director and editor -- is entirely responsible for spawning this misshapen thing. Let out to play from the single-location constraints of "Buried," Cortés tries for what he must imagine are stylistic pyrotechnics. His camera circles and careens and jump-cuts, not because there are valid reasons for seeing any part of this particular movie world that way, but because that's what arty filmmakers do, isn't it?
"Red Lights" moves by fits and starts, narrative development reduced to dramatic hiccups. The protagonists never talk naturally; they babble or rant at each other. Take this indigestible chunk of movie: A new student recruit (the always-lovely but entirely superfluous Elizabeth Olsen) wonders why Buckley, a full-fledged physicist, is playing second fiddle to an academic ghostbuster. Tom spins a sad tale about his mother, lulled into ignorance by a psychic who diagnosed the pain in her tummy as gastritis when it was really late-stage stomach cancer. (A story that may or may not be true; script swings both ways.) Next scene: Matheson yearns over a snapshot of her younger self embracing a little boy. Phone rings; no one's there. Then she discovers her teaspoon mysteriously bent. Her reaction: Dunno, since she shows none, not even curiosity. Cut to hospital room, where, out of the blue, Matheson lectures Buckley about the nonexistence of an afterlife, the reason she's kept her comatose son artificially alive for years and years. This is news to her right-hand man?
OK, it's possible, if you want to do the work, to dredge up some dramatic significance here, perhaps some metastasizing mother-son trope that might color what's to come. But information about these emotionally juiceless folks is like random data carelessly scrawled on a blackboard. Little of what we learn carries over from scene to scene. Almost nothing in that chunk of narrative actually matters. It exists to fill time, pretense that this is an actual movie with places to go, people to see, story to tell.
Hope rears a tentative head when Simon Silver, a clairvoyant so famous he steals front-page headlines and sells out cavernous theaters, comes out of retirement. Ah, we sigh, it's Robert De Niro. Surely he'll bring some Scorsesean energy to this dramatic sinkhole. Even a touch of his satanic smarm from "Angel Heart" would be welcome. Forget that. Except for an occasional little superior smirk of a smile, Mr. De Niro seems as weary and disengaged as everyone else in "Red Lights." His performances do give the usually limp Buckley an excuse to go ballistic on the need to investigate the Silver phenomenon: "We look like idiots," he screams at Mother Matheson. (Yes, dear Cillian, we've noticed. Blame your director or your agent.) Why should Silver suddenly light Buckley's fire? The answer to that lies in the ether, along with the rest of "Red Lights"'s amateur-hour fails.
In the final innings of the movie, making sense seems to have been utterly abandoned: Not a single conversation or action adds up. Maybe everybody concerned just threw in the towel, deciding to plow through the fiasco as swiftly as they could, coherence be damned. Some extreme violence and a lot of big, melodramatic music signal the finish line's in sight. Hallelujah.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.