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Red Lights: The sceptics are heroes in paranormal movie thriller

With ‘Buried’, the Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés cranked up the tension with a script that was restricted to the inside of a coffin. But when it comes to the bigger picture, can he think outside the box?

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Cillian Murphy (left) meets his match in Robert De Niro in 'Red Lights'.

In the opening minutes of Red Lights, the new paranormal thriller by Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés, Dr Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) arrive at a house on a hill to investigate a reported ghost. Big, old and surrounded by skeletal trees – the place certainly looks haunted. But the thing is, it isn’t. The suspected poltergeist is just an unhappy little girl, slamming her wardrobe door to scare the bejesus out of mum and dad. Case closed.

By day, Matheson and Buckley teach paranormal scepticism to psychology students and by night and on the weekends, they’re a hoax-fighting duo, exposing alleged hauntings and fraudulent psychics. But they meet their match when Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), the greatest onstage psychic of them all, comes out of retirement for one more show. And one final showdown.

Buried, Cortés’s previous film, played out entirely in a coffin buried somewhere below the Iraqi desert. He handled the material with aplomb, keeping us gagging up until the final, excruciating seconds. Perhaps looking to stretch his legs after being stuck in a box, this time he’s tackled a big story. And he’s definitely onto something in Red Lights. Films that deal in the paranormal tend to look at the world through the eyes of the believers. It’s usually the sceptics who’re the baddies, lacking the heart to realise there might be Something Else. By giving us sceptics as heroes instead, Cortés is primed to head off in some fascinating directions. Unfortunately, Red Lights is just a series of wrong turns.

The nut of the problem is that nothing ever quite rings true. We’re asked to buy into a series of implausible and off-key scenes and characters and the upshot is we just stop caring.

Margaret and Tom’s sessions teaching paranormal scepticism seem a handy invention, rather than any class for undergrads (are there classes for undergrads in paranormal scepticism?). In one scene, Matheson explains to students how a hoaxer can game a seance while Buckley demonstrates, making a table levitate with a little sleight of leg. And we’re wondering: what class is this, and why didn’t I take it?

And if their job doesn’t seem real, neither do they. Maybe it’s because their characters lack messy nuances, maybe it’s because nothing around them is quite right, but both leads remain on the page, never sparking to life. The film is ultimately about Buckley and his need to confront some pretty serious personal demons (no spoilers), but it feels like Cortés had an idea for a clever character predicament, then tried to fit a character into it. As a result, Buckley’s plight feels bogus.

And then there’s Simon Silver, the most famous psychic of the lot. He mysteriously dropped out of the business 30 years ago and now, on the verge of his comeback show, people across the US are scrambling for tickets, paying thousands for a seat. If fame has a half-life of 15 minutes, then such a frenzy after three decades doesn’t add up. And what kind of psychic is he supposed to be? As well as reading minds, we see him bending spoons, doing on-stage John of God-esque cancer surgery and then, in the denouement, he levitates for the crowd. Whether he’s a fake or not, it all feels a bit too flamboyant to create nationwide hysteria. Which is maybe why the newsreel footage of the desperate punters queuing for tickets plays like something out of a mockumentary.

Weaver, De Niro and Murphy do their best, but without believable and meaty characters to hang a performance on, none of them ever hits second gear.

Harking back to ‘Buried’

There are flashes of the sure directorial hand we saw in Buried. Cortés knows how to wind up the tension, and when to let it go and along the way he does give us a few good scares. There’s also a great scene where Matheson and Buckley bust a faith-healer and a brilliant gag with a pissed-off homeless woman.

But as Red Lights spins a grander and more complex web of twists, turns and strange happenings, it starts to spin out of control. Cortés also wrote the script and you can’t help but wonder if, alone at the helm, he got lost in his own story.

The end, a cataclysmic face-off between Buckley and Silver, brims with big explosions, big music, big important speeches and a big twist. But while Cortés wants us on the edge of our seats as it all comes together, we’re a million miles away, shut out by too much pseudo-psycho babble and two-dimensional characters. Which makes the bombastic final moments, rather than cathartic and full of revelation, as silly and suspect as Uri Geller and a set of bent teaspoons.

‘Red Lights’ is on general release across Spain.

Follow James on twitter: @jamesblick78





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Published: Mar 8 2012
Category: Featured, Films, IberoArts, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
Short URL: http://iberosphere.com/?p=5654
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