Thursday, October 25, 2012

Red Lights

Red Lights (2012)
Dir. Rodrigo Cortes
Written by: Rodrigo Cortes
Starring Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Jones, Robert “duh” Niro, Elizabeth Olson

    Man, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore. Or I guess they do, since it was released this year. But boy, they don’t make ‘em like this very often. What we got here is a gorgeously filmed, consummately well-acted, highly literate, tense, well-paced film which manages to be rich in subtext without becoming overbearing and didactic. It’s original, compelling, constantly surprising, and intellectually honest. What I’m saying basically is that this is one really good film.

    Of course, I may be predisposed to like it. For one thing, it features the first actual acting either Sigourney Weaver or Robert De Niro has done is about two decades of lazy thrillers and cameo riffs on their classic work, and they’re both really great. For another, it’s about two academics (Weaver and Cillian Murphy) who go about debunking fraudulent claims of supernatural ability. At the top of the list is is De Niro as Simon Silver, a flashy psychic who is making a hugely publicized return from retirement, whose arrogance borders on threatening and who may just be the real deal. Can Weaver and Murphy prove that this smug celebrity is a manipulative charlatan, or are they messing with something more dangerous? That’s a setup which plays to my particular prejudices, I admit. Although I’m always open to what Mulder calls “extreme possibilities,”* I’m deeply skeptical of all paranormal claims and deeply angered by the sort of pseudo-religious sleazeballs who prey on people’s emotions and vulnerabilities for a quick buck and a snake-oil cure-all. But how much would it take to convince me that I’m wrong? At what point does it stop being about science and rationality and start becoming a personal holy war to protect your own beliefs about reality? That’s the question at the heart of the film, and it’s a big one.

Oh yeah, acting! I remember doing that.

    To answer it, writer/ director Rodrigo Cortes (BURIED) apparently spent a year and a half researching and studying psychic phenomenon, including both the people who claim it and the people who doubt it. The film never feels like a pedantic synopsis of the topic, but it does manage to naturally include an interesting variety of perspectives, from the inflexible skeptics to the hardcore believers to those who believe in spite of their better instincts to those who simply don’t care if it’s real or not. Having these perspectives represented does more than just offer different paths to the audience -- it eloquently helps to explain exactly how the phenomenon of psychic powers came to find its peculiar and unique place within our society. And, it helps explain what the stakes are for our protagonists.

    I suspect many people will find this movie deeply scary, as Weaver and Murphy begin to encounter frightening and seemingly inexplicable phenomenon the closer they get to Silver. But to me, weird coincidences and dead birds are nothing compared to the fear that somehow they’re wrong, that the kooks and superstitious ninnies are right, that our faith in rational thinking and science has allowed us to miss the forest for the trees. If that’s true, it opens a deep existential dread about what life itself means that a rational atheist is ill-suited to address (what can I say, I went to Catholic school). So this one evoked a particular anxiety in me that has nothing to do with its sumptuously creepy photography and seductively menacing performance from De Niro. It Challenges a guy like me with the question,  “what if everything you think you understand is actually wong?” -- and that had me on the edge of my seat and barely noticing how well-executed the traditional scare scenes are. But lest you be tempted to give up and believe your eyes, Cortes also provides us with Toby Jones’s character: a scientists who makes his career on rationally assessing paranormal phenomenon, but who turns out to not be great at seeing the “red lights” of the title -- little giveaways that someone may be using misdirection and trickery to make sure your eyes are seeing only what they want. And, the film subtlety reminds us, he has a nagging practical reason to allow himself to be tricked. As long as there’s some doubt, he still has a lucrative gig investigating things which are ultimately unprovable. And of course, as filmgoers we suffer from the same slight prejudice of wanting to be shocked. Cortes sadistically refuses to let you forget either point of view, even as he carefully pushes you in one direction after another. 

Who ya gonna call?

    I guess a lot of people, even that old fussbudget Roger Ebert, were annoyed by the end. I suspect it’s because they, like me, genuinely did not see it coming. It seems like the movie sets you up for one of two possible big reveals, and then diabolically goes for a third possibility which I have to concede sort of blew my mind and caused me to reflect back on the rest of the movie to see if it was indeed playing fair (it was, mostly). Twist endings are a tricky thing, because if you twist enough you’ll end up cutting the end off from the themes and narrative momentum of the rest of it and ultimately leave yourself without much substance beyond a well-calculated surprise. But here, I think, Cortes does the impossible and makes a sudden turn which in retrospect causes the rest of the film to feel more meaningful. When you go back to check his logic, you’ll find a whole hidden layer of meaning and emotion to a story which was already plenty filled with both. I believe this is pretty indicative of a piece of art which at the very least flirts with genuine greatness. No, I don’t just believe. The film provides plenty of good evidence to back that up.

PS: And for more evidence, don't forget to check out Dan P's take as part of his Abbot and Costello Prove that Religion is a Lie series.

* By the way, one of the great set decorations is Murphy's office is a reprint of Mulder's famous "I want to believe" poster, retitled something along the lines of "I want to understand."


BOOBIES: I'm afraid I must dash your hopes for some late-career 'Gourney boobage. And even Elizabeth Olson keeps her top on.
> or = HERSCHELL GORDON LEWIS LEVEL GORE: No significant gore.
OBSCURITY LEVEL: Got limited release this year, but seemed to attract little attention despite the excellent cast.
MONSTERS: Only the monster of superstition and irrationality.
SATANISTS: No, even though there's an obvious religious subtext here we stay mostly out of specific religious matters.
CURSES: Well, it definitely seems like De Niro puts the whammy on our heroes.
ALEX MADE IT THROUGH AWAKE: N/A. Sorry Alex, I didn't think it would be this good or I'd have waited.

1 comment:

  1. Don't know if it says anything about the movie, but as a supplement to the Alex-sleep-inducing measure of the checklist: I fell asleep for the last like, 10-15 minutes, but not because the movie was bad, because I was really really tired and I was pretty sad I missed the ending, until Joe and Dan like, jumped around explaining the ending like two kids on Christmas who just unwrapped a cinematically-accurate Lego Star Wars Death Star. They were way more excited about the ending than I thought possible to be excited about an ending, and yes maybe because they were drunk. But I've also seen them drunkenly disappointed in things, so I think it was mostly to the movie's credit.