I settled in to watch the thriller RED LIGHTS (2012), now available on Streaming Video, expecting to see a battle between two cinematic heavyweights, Sigourney Weaver vs. Robert De Niro, but sadly the movie doesn’t play out this way, and the two actors, who play adversarial characters in this story, don’t even get to share any screen time. Bummer.
In RED LIGHTS, psychologist and professional skeptic Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) travels the nation with her young assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) debunking false psychics and mediums. They’re sort of “myth busters” for paranormal occurrences. Early on, they assist a family whose house is “haunted,” and it doesn’t take them long to show that the young medium “helping” the family is really nothing more than a talented hair dresser, and the strange noises are caused by the family’s young daughter who wants to move back to their previous home.
When taking on “professional psychics” who fill entire auditoriums with people eager to receive the benefits of their psychic abilities and healing powers, Margaret and Tom break out the high tech equipment to expose these frauds.
Meanwhile, the most famous psychic in the country, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement after a nearly 30 year absence from the public scene. Young Tom is eager to take on Simon and prove that the master is a fraud, but Margaret wants no part of Silver. She considers him too dangerous, especially since thirty years before during his last performance, the man who was close to exposing him died under mysterious circumstances.
When pressed by a TV interviewer to talk about this suspicious death, Silver explains that his skeptics’ accusations that he had anything to do with the man’s death are bogus and nonsensical, because on the one hand, they’re calling him a fake, yet on the other, they’re saying he used his “powers” to kill his critic.
Up until this point, I was really into this movie. I had completely bought into its premise, and I was looking forward to the efforts which Margaret and Tom would employ to try to prove that Simon was a fraud. However, the story takes a dramatic turn, completely removing Margaret from the picture, leaving Tom to face Simon on his own.
Tom brings in his beautiful young student assistant Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) to help out, and the rest of the movie pits these two young skeptics against the master psychic Simon, whose powers seem too formidable to be phony.
The film’s downhill spiral continues towards an improbable twist ending that flies in the face of its earlier message of healthy skepticism.
For a movie that starts off so well, RED LIGHTS surprisingly loses its momentum and eventually becomes a disappointment. It’s really two completely different halves. The first half is compelling and interesting, whereas the second is melodramatic and sensationalistic, and nowhere near as intriguing as its beginning. And it’s topped off by a weak twist ending that just doesn’t work. RED LIGHTS truly is a mixed bag.
The first half of RED LIGHTS really belongs to Sigourney Weaver. Her psychologist/skeptic Margaret Matheson is a fascinating character who really deserves an entire movie about her, not just half a movie. Margaret is a veteran psychologist, she’s been doing this for years, and she makes for a very formidable character. I really liked her. I also liked her motivations. Her adult son has been in a coma and on life support for years, and she admits that she has selfishly kept him on life support because all of her investigations have consistently turned up the same results, that there is nothing supernatural or otherworldly out there, or in her son’s case, there’s no after life.
It’s a great performance by Weaver, much more memorable than her recent appearances in THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY (2012) and THE CABIN IN THE WOODS (2011). She really brings Margaret to life, and she does this in just half a movie. Imagine how good she would have been had she been in the whole thing! It’s her best work since AVATAR (2009).
Like the second half of the movie, Robert De Niro’s performance as psychic Simon Silver is overdramatic and not that satisfying. De Niro used to be able to create very uncomfortable characters. His Simon Silver should be one very unsavory man, yet De Niro doesn’t seem to get inside this guy’s head. Instead of coming off as threatening, he comes off as angry. De Niro’s recent performance in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) was much more satisfying.
RED LIGHTS is really about Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) as he emerges as the story’s central character, and Cillian Murphy in fact does receive top billing here. But as a character, Tom is never as interesting as Margaret or Simon Silver. RED LIGHTS is clearly a story that should have been about these two veteran characters, not the young whippersnapper. Of course, Tom has to be the central character here because he’s part of the twist ending, but this twist doesn’t work, and this movie would have been better both without it and without Tom as its main focus.
I like Cillian Murphy a lot, and I’ve enjoyed his performances in INCEPTION (2010) and in Christopher Nolan’s DARK KNIGHT trilogy, and he’s fine here. The problem is he’s overshadowed by Weaver and De Niro, and once Weaver is gone, she leaves a void that Murphy isn’t able to fill.
The very cute Elizabeth Olsen fares better here in a supporting role as Sally Owen than she did in the awful horror movie SILENT HOUSE (2011).
Writer/director Rodrigo Cortes sets up an intriguing first half to this thriller but then takes it in a direction that is less believable and ultimately less satisfying than its start. Frankly, skeptic Margaret Matheson would never believe how this story plays out, and neither did I.
Instead of an intelligent drama about the efforts to disprove a fraudulent psychic, the movie switches gears and becomes a dramatic thriller about supernatural powers on the loose.
Red lights refers to a term used by Margaret to identify “tells” the frauds use in their work. For example, in one instance, the “red lights” are people used by a phony faith healer to find information about his audience. This term is used again when Tom and Sally investigate Simon, as they look for “red lights” to expose him.
Sadly, this thought-provoking idea is largely wasted, and when the twist ending rears its ugly head, all thought and intellect earlier employed in this story are rendered moot.
It has a captivating premise, but RED LIGHTS shifts gears midway through, slowing down, before eventually coming to an abrupt stop.
Fitting, I guess, since stopping is what you’re supposed to do when you come to a red light.