Watching Red-Eye is like settling into a well-worn recliner with a blanket, a hot cup of tea, and a newspaper. Wes Craven’s 85-minute genre piece is familiar, comfortable, and a delight through and through; the venerable filmmaker can do this in his sleep, of course, but I’m more than happy to let him. When it comes to technical mastery of the suspense variety, he is virtually unmatched, and this minor movie works straightforwardly, like an efficient machine. It’s nothing as revelatory as the trailer — one of the greatest trailers of all time, by the way — might suggest, but I couldn’t bring myself to be disappointed. Sometimes you have to be grateful for simple pleasures.
One of those pleasures turns out, rather unexpectedly, to be watching the two leads at work. Rachel McAdams’ breakout role may have been as the alpha repellent bitch in Mean Girls, and it was a good one, but it’s subsequently become clear that her talent lies in projecting an amiable everyday quality despite her superstar beauty. Actresses considered beautiful often have to “uglify” themselves, to use a vulgar term, in order to play “regular folk”; I doubt McAdams will ever need to go to such lengths. She is perfectly cast here as Lisa Reisert, the overwhelmingly nice and organized hotel manager who is held hostage and threatened with the murder of her father on a flight to Miami. Like most protagonists in movies like this, she is plucky and resourceful, but only as a consequence of being reasonably intelligent; no astonishing and improbable escape plots hereabouts.
Cillian Murphy, on the other hand, after making a name for himself as the hero in Danny Boyle’s apocalyptic 28 Days Later, has seemingly started a villainous holding pattern, following up his great turn as Scarecrow in Batman Begins with this quintessential bad guy role. That’s a good thing — Murphy has a vaguely menacing appearance, and also this way of subtly sticking out his chin that projects a brash self-confidence combined with undeniably evil intentions. His interplay with McAdams — she terrified and frantically trying to think her way out of the predicament, he coldly calculating with periodic outbursts of violence — is wonderful to watch.
The third star, of course, is Wes Craven, whose command of the form is almost too good for him to continue pursuing these little genre films — unless you think, as I do, that genre films are among the noblest endeavors. A hostage thriller set on an airplane has the potential to play on any number of common anxieties, from the general fear of flying, to claustrophobia, to all sorts of scary terrorism overtones, and Craven capitalizes on all of them, crafting scares of varying subtlety while testing the bounds of plausibility without ever quite crossing them. This may also be the first time I have ever seen those cheesy coach-class AirFones put to use, in what might be the film’s best suspense set piece.
Once the two get off the plane — I will tread carefully hear to avoid overt spoilers — Red-Eye shifts into a different gear. Craven has an affinity for shots of characters walking fast or running toward the camera with head bowed (there was even such an image in Music of the Heart), and Murphy, by now fully in psycho mode, is a great subject for such villain fetishizing. The film’s conclusion can only be described as exuberant, with lots of running around, fighting, stalking, and screaming; in contrast to the almost sedate suspense of the first two acts, it almost seems goofy. But fun is fun, and by this point the filmmaker had ratcheted the tension to a level where the sudden action release was satisfying.
Red-Eye will take criticism for being “minor” and “insubstantial,” but in the genre universe, it’s hardly either of those. Some will probably take jabs at Craven for his lack of ambition, but I say making great suspense thrillers is ambition enough, not to mention a rare talent. Red-Eye won’t change anyone’s life, but it entertains like few films do, and that’s an honorable goal.