He is not a well known name such as his fellow Spanish language directors Guillermo del Toro or Alejandro Amenábar, but Rodrigo Cortés could be a name to watch in the future. His previous English language film Buried, a claustrophobic thriller starring Ryan Reynolds, was well received with comparisons to Hitchcock, and on his latest venture he has gathered the considerable talents of Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy and Robert de Niro.
Doctor Margaret Matheson has spent her life investigating and debunking alleged paranormal incidents and fraudulent psychics, but there is one target that she has avoided, the reclusive Simon Silver. When Silver comes out of retirement for a sold out engagement, against her advice, Matheson’s assistant Dr Tom Buckley determines that he will do what she is unwilling to and prove that his powers are faked.
The influences on Red Lights are obvious, from the opening credit montage that plays like an update of title sequence of The X Files followed by Weaver and Murphy’s close rapport as they discuss cases while driving through backwoods to their next lonely farmhouse destination, but never so much as in the poster that hangs in Buckley’s office, a very familiar UFO over trees bearing the words “I want to understand.”
The tone and pace of the film is reminiscent of the bleakness of early Cronenberg or Peter Medak’s masterpiece The Changeling, and it goes without saying that the performances of the leads are exemplary. Cortés directs from his own script with assurance and measure, laying out the characters and their needs and flaws as events gather around them, some possibly coincidence, others disturbingly directed towards the investigators.
There are moments of quirkiness during the film, none more so than when Dr Matheson’s academic rival, played by Toby Jones, presents the results of his own experiments with Silver, an interlude filmed almost as a pastiche of Wes Anderson, but to those familiar with such experiments, of greater concern is the fact that there is an implicit flaw in the experimental protocol which is never addressed in the film which will be obvious to anyone who has read Christopher Brookmyre’s 2007 novel The Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks, which for much of the narrative runs along very similar lines, although there is considerable divergence in the final ten minutes.
Unfortunately, it is here that the film is absolutely undermined by a resolution that betrays the whole ethic of the preceeding hundred minutes. Unlike the excellence of last year’s The Awakening, which from the start is told as a ghost story, albeit with a veneer of modernity, Red Lights is presented as a skeptical investigation and evaluation which is betrayed by the sudden presence of the “woo” factor, a bowing to the multiplex audience demands be met, irrespective of how out of keeping they are with what has gone before. To use the analogy that Doctor Matheson offers in the film, despite all of the evidence, there are those whose need overwhelms reason; they are dogs who will not give up the bone. Unlike Fox Mulder’s need to believe, this caters to a desperation that should not be encouraged in an age of reason.