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Red Lights: Sundance Film Review

Red Lights

The Bottom Line

A self-important psychic thriller may attract indiscriminate fans of all things paranormal but becomes increasingly incoherent and infuriating.

 

Venue

Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Cast

Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Toby Jones, Joely Richardson, Elizabeth Olsen, Craig Roberts, Adriane Lenox, Leonardo Sbaraglia

Director/screenwriter

Rodrigo Cortes

Audiences should heed the title as a warning about this disappointing paranormal thriller from Rodrigo Cortes.

After interring Ryan Reynolds for an hour-and-a-half in Buried, Spanish auteur Rodrigo Cortes leads some illustrious actors down a mysterious path before burying them with a pile of psychic mumbo-jumbo in Red Lights. Millenium Entertainment, which paid a reported $6 million for North American rights at Sundance, must believe that there’s a big enough public to go for anything touching on the paranormal, and the cast, headed by Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro, treading its way through assorted creepy moments, offers additional enticements. But discerning audiences will heed the title as sufficient warning.

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Weaver plays the eminent Dr. Margaret Matheson, who has spent most of her career methodically puncturing the balloons of paranormal activity believers and advocates. In three decades, she tells her avid students, she has never encountered a convincing case of the phenomenon that keeps certain cable TV networks on the air and many less scrupulous authorities in clover.

But it was also 30 years ago that Margaret had her tiny moment of doubt, when some vague hope that an afterlife might provide some relief her hopelessly comatose son was prayed upon by the superstar psychic of his age, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro). Now, Silver, who is blind, is emerging from his mysterious seclusion for a series of public appearances, provoking Margaret and her devoted acolyte, Dr. Tom Buckley (Murphy), to dig in their heels.

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For a portion of the excessive two-hour running time, writer-director Cortes acquits himself honestly enough by balancing the legitimate curiosity many people have about unexplainable occurrences with rational rejections to buying into fanciful hocus pocus. He also exhibits a reasonable talent for building sequences through muscular staging, rhythmic editing and strong music.

But, to borrow some baseball parlance, after putting good wood on the ball and rounding second base, Cortes trips, gets a faceful of dirt and is tagged out before reaching third. In the wake of stirring controversy at his elaborate in-person events, Silver agrees to submit to being analyzed at the Scientific Paranormal Research Center under the supervision of Margaret’s rival (Toby Jones). Increasingly, however, especially after one of the major characters is sidelined, scenes are devoted to Buckley chasing around the city and yelling at people, to increasingly annoying effect. The ending represents a giant middle finger pointed upward toward anyone desirous of a comprehensible conclusion; one feels like extending one right back at the film.

Dominating the first half with a sincere, well articulated performance, Weaver comes off best here, followed by Murphy, at least in the first half. By contrast, De Niro’s enigmatic seer is all puffed up ego and Jones is a caricatured antagonist, while Elizabeth Olsen’s role as a willing research assistant is an undeveloped tag-along afterthought.

Shot on locations in and around Toronto and Barcelona, the film looks good but has a sense of self-importance that makes it all the easier for it to sink of its own weight. Re-cutting both for length and increased coherence could only improve matters.