Red Lights

I confess to not knowing quite what to make of Rodrigo Cortes’ Red Lights, a sprawling, heavily stylized mystery about a pair of paranormal debunkers (Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver) investigating a world-famous psychic and mentalist (Robert De Niro) who has emerged from retirement for one last blow-out showcase. It’s deranged and absurd, and it’s probably nonsense. Cortes, who also wrote the screenplay, clearly intended some sort of meditation on rationality vs. faith, but I can’t make the case that it’s cogent, or that it has anything compelling to say. It is, however, riveting for every last second of its considerable running time. Along with Buried, Cortes’ debut feature set entirely inside a coffin, Red Lights introduces an ambitious and daring new voice.

Cortes constructs a convincing alternate universe where large American universities host dueling academic departments that investigate the paranormal, and where old-school mentalists and healers pack large theaters to deliver revival-tent-style harangues. Weaver and Murphy fight the good fight, exposing frauds and teaching the tricks of the trade to a class of eager undergraduates who ask questions like, “So you’re saying there’s no such thing as paranormal phenomena?” The first half hour is wry and a little humorous (the opening line of dialogue is one of the most delightfully odd filmmaking choices I’ve seen recently), but that doesn’t last: as De Niro’s legendary charlatan (or is he?) comes to increasing prominence, it becomes clear that something legitimately sinister has its eye on our heroes.

The title refers to an investigator’s tool: “red lights” are “discordant notes,” small hints that something is amiss or out of place. Red Lights is all red lights. Murphy’s hotshot young scientist ultimately emerges as the protagonist, and the film becomes increasingly subjective and unhinged as it becomes clear through an accumulation of details large and small that something has gone terribly wrong, though we’re not sure quite what it is. There are set pieces here that play like the love children of Richard Kelly and David Lynch, and it’s been a while since I’ve been this profoundly uneasy in a theater. I have my doubts about the plotting, and the much-talked-about climactic left turn, but the film is a tour de force of mood, atmosphere, and tone. If you care at all about intelligent genre cinema that doesn’t paint by numbers, you’ve got to buy a ticket to Red Lights, warts and all.

-- Eugene Novikov

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Screening Log

Snitch

Ric Roman Waugh, 2013

Score: C

Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh, 2013

Score: C+

10 Years

Jamie Linden, 2012

Score: B-

The Place Beyond the Pines

Derek Cianfrance, 2013

Score: B+

Warm Bodies

Jonathan Levine, 2013

Score: C

Beautiful Creatures

Richard LaGravanese, 2013

Score: B-

The Window

Ted Tetzlaff, 1949

Score: B+

The Chase

Arthur Ripley, 1946

Score: B

Street of Chance

Jack Hively, 1942

Score: C

The Taste of Money

Im Sang-Soo, 2013

Score: C+

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