Sunday, June 01, 2014

You will know the truth, and the truth will make you furious.

This is my contribution to The Ninth Annual White Elephant Film Blogathon, hosted by Philip Tatler IV at his blog, Diary of a Country Pickpocket.

Red Lights is a well-crafted thriller with a talented cast that is, at its core, deeply silly. The silliest idea it asks us to accept is that it takes place in a world where psychics are as famous as rock stars, and when a small department of paranormal investigators attempt to debunk the world's most famous psychic, it's practically the biggest news story in the world. There's a scene where one of the doctors, played by Toby Jones, is about to present the findings of their investigation; as he leaves his office, he's flanked by a mob of yelling reporters shoving cameras and microphones in his face, like he's a murder suspect or one of the pilots in The Right Stuff. A scene like that, no matter how dynamically staged and shot it is (and director Rodrigo Cortés is skilled at both), is inherently goofy and impossible to believe in a movie that otherwise presents itself as taking place in the real world. There are bad movies, like The Room or Troll II, that are bad because of a level of amateurish incompetence that they become compelling works of outsider art. More puzzling are bad movies that are made by and star people that should have known better; you wonder what they thought they were making, and why nobody involved ever stopped and asked "Wait, what are we doing?"

The movie is well made enough that, for the first 45 minutes or so, I thought I might end up praising it as good junk food. I like the notion of making the paranormal investigators skeptics, as they're usually portrayed onscreen as believers or characters who very much want to believe. Unfortunately, the movie makes its nonbelievers, led by Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) - who is described as a physicist, though we see little evidence of it - look as smug and unprincipled as the anti-death penalty advocates in the supposedly anti-death penalty film The Life of David Gale (Weaver, Murphy and Elizabeth Olson, as the newest member of the team, try their best to make their clumsy expository dialogue work, God bless them). When world-famous psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) takes a more prominent role in the story, Red Lights flatlines (remember Flatliners?). Silver, who is blind, wears dark shades and is dressed entirely in black throughout the film; his stage show consists of him bellowing about faith from a mostly darkened stage, sounding a little like Max Cady, and occasionally levitating and causing stage lights to explode (or is he??). De Niro's presence in the movie, which Cortés is clearly relying on to give the story credibility, is a depressing reminder of the damage he's done to his own legacy. When he's onstage, we're supposed to be questioning whether Silver is truly clairvoyant or a very talented crook, but we can't forget that, as loud as his performance is, De Niro is only giving us a small fraction of what he's capable of. It's awkward to watch one of the greatest actors of his generation reduced to hack stagecraft.

That the character that is meant to be central to the mystery and suspense the movie is trying to generate is so empty at the center only emphasizes how silly the entire movie is, especially when the third act devolves into bloody fight scenes that have almost no bearing on the narrative, uninspired effects sequences and, especially, two twist endings. One is laughably obvious, and I was surprised the other was meant as a twist, as it involves a reveal about one character's true nature that is so poorly telegraphed, I thought we were supposed to know the whole time. It sucks when a thriller feels obligated to include a twist, so it's structured to withhold information that would be much more interesting if, like Jacob's Ladder or Shutter Island, it's purposefully letting the audience in on the whole time. Even if the character who is affected by the twist opts not to tell anyone else in the movie (though that still makes no sense), presenting it as a twist deprives us of learning how that character feels about it, how it has affected the character's life. Instead, we get a rushed epilogue bringing us up to speed and an ending that can't decide between Elmer Gantry-esque cynicism or wide-eyed Shyamalan-ian wonder. I'm fine with ambiguity, and I'm not asking Cortés to give me a definitive answer on whether psychics are real, but as the psychic wars are an Earth-shatteringly important story, you think he'd have more to say on the matter.