Until it turns into pure silliness, “Red Lights” provides a refreshing take on the paranormal/physic horror movie, namely because it takes place from the point of view of skeptics. Most films about ghosts or psychics let us know up front if they exist but--for a while anyways--in Rodrigo Cortez’s (“Buried”) new film the viewer is unaware of their existence.
The skeptic is psychologist Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and with her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) they investigate supposed paranormal activity. First they go to the home of a little kid who can apparently draw pictures due to ghost energy… or something like that. They prove that it’s fake. Then they go to a “professional psychic” show and prove him to be a phony as well. When the two aren’t spoiling everyone’s fun they’re back at a paranormal research center teaching “Paranormal Skepticism 101” (that’s not the actual title of the class but it may as well be) to college students.
They lecture and demo the various ways people can convince others as well as themselves that ghosts exist. For example, you know the old ghost movie cliché where a psychic and a group of people sit at a table holding hands and apparently conjure up spirits that cause the table to levitate? Well, according to the “ghost busters” there’s a way you can lift the table up using your legs in a convincing manner.
From what I can gather, their main thesis is that, for the most part, paranormal activity is illusion and psychics are the illusionists. It’s a magic trick.
Some of what they come up with is fairly convincing, but then: Enter Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) a world renowned, blind psychic (the best of them all) with a controversial past. He becomes Margaret and Tom’s greatest challenge; the rest of the movie is devoted to them trying to unravel the mystery. For about the first half hour or so “Red Lights” is surprisingly effective as a mystery/thriller. Both sides (the believers and the skeptics) provide compelling evidence and the audience isn’t sure what to believe. According to an interview, Cortez (who also wrote the movie) spent a year and a half researching both sides of the “psychic powers” issue so his script is intelligent and well informed.
However, during the last third of the film, spooky things start to happen and alas this is where the film crashes and burns. The movie worked perfectly well as a thriller but for whatever reason Cortez feels the need to amp up the theatrics, and goes for the easy and weightless “jolt” scares. Most of them have absolutely nothing to do with the story. Like when Tom trails Simon in his car, he has to screech to a halt do to a creepy looking homeless woman in the street, who points at him. Even worse, the movie settles for a cheap twist ending. Considering the picture covers both sides of the psychic issue debate it would have been better to end it on an ambiguous note and allow us to draw our own conclusions.
Weaver gives a typically stern performance and is awfully good at being condescending to people, while Murphy does his best to meet her on her level. De Niro ranges from bland to corny which is sometimes entertaining to watch, though I wish the movie had gone deeper into his character. But I dunno, overall none of the acting felt that inspired, even from the likes of Elizabeth Olsen and Toby Jones in supporting roles. Everyone just seemed disinterested and distracted. Maybe when they read the script they were initially impressed by the intriguing subject but then were disappointed by how it turned out.