The cast of Rodrigo Cortés' second offering all have something to prove. Sigourney Weaver and Robert De Niro, especially, have spent their recent years filling stunt-cast roles in dead-in-the-middle-of-the-road movies starring "new actors" - the equivalent of that Charlton Heston cameo in Wayne's World 2. But I'm completely convinced that Red Lights is not only a great big "sorry" from them, but also a "we can still do this, see?".
Firstly, I know this review is wordy and lacking in details. I would love to write a "spoiler filled" review but I honestly believe that it would be an awful thing to do. So, you'll have to make do with a bare-bones synopsis and just enough vague comment and enthusiasm to annoy. So...
The premise of the film is age-old; Sceptics investigate paranormal activity with varying results. Here, a University psychology lecturer Margaret Matheson (an iron-clad performance from Weaver) and her physicist assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy, proving here that he is every inch a leading man) spend their ample time and dwindling financial backing trying to expose fraudulent paranormal happenings - seances, faith healing, spoon bending - by looking for what they call red lights; the clues on show, to those who know where to look, which reveal the fakers' methods. The first hour of the film is, indeed, a fascinating how-to showcase of the methods used by table-tippers, mind-readers and money-grabbers. And it really is great. not only interesting and insightful but a perfect rationale, setting us up for the film's second act...
Which is this: Blind stage psychic, Simon Silver (a perfect performance by a recently-rubbish De Niro), once enjoyed success to rival that of Uri Geller in the 70s. He was the world's most popular paranormal performer, churning out psychic surgery, levitation and mumbo-jumbo to audiences of thousands. That was until a journalist who dared to heckle Silver at a show some years ago collapsed and died before he could so much as utter the word "fraud". Those convinced of Silver's powers were shaken by the possibility that maybe, just maybe, Silver psychic'd the journalist to death. Those more sceptical championed more grounded foul play. And now Simon Silver has come out of retirement for one last hurrah.
Determined to reveal Silver as the fraud he must by (surely?) Buckley sets out, with his hi-tech gear, to get him, against all the warnings from Matheson, who learnt long ago not to go up against the powerful and resourceful Silver.
And so the film drives towards a seemingly predictable final act via a generous sprinkling of genuinely unnerving set-pieces, successfully deployed jump scares and a rather brutal (even OTT?) fight sequence. Either Simon Silver is a powerful fraud hell-bent on keeping his secret or he's a genuinely powerful individual with actual psychic abilities... but which is it? The film does its best to lead you down blind alleys, make you look in the wrong places and listen to the wrong people, and make guesses as to the outcome the whole way through. And yet it still manages to slip twist after twist past you without you realising that you've probably already thought of them, about an hour ago, "when he did that, or said this, or appeared be whatever". And that last comment - that you'd have already thought of the twists - is not a complaint. It's not a negative in any way. In fact, it's a perfect safety-net for a closing sequence that, in one single line uttered by Psychic Silver, sends the audience into a spin that changes the direction you thought the film was heading, whatever direction you thought it was heading.
The ending of this film will divide audiences, there's no question about that. I'd say a good 70% of you will think "that ruined it". That's not how I felt at all. In fact, when the answer to the Silver Question arrives, when he makes his admission (sort of), I felt that the rug had been pulled from beneath me and a smile spread across my face. This is the sort of film you can watch at least three times, in three different ways, and enjoy on three different levels. And genre-wise, too, it has levels. If you like jumpy suspense movies, watch it and jump. If you like sceptical, intelligent, thoughtful thrillers then this is for you. If you're looking for a paranormal drama then, sure, take that. It's everything you need it to be, a load of what you never expected for one second and only a little bit of what you wish it wasn't. But then, if it was perfect, I would be giving it that last star.
This film is packed with great supporting turns from Brits Toby Jones, Joely Richardson and Craig Roberts and a lovely little performance from Elizabeth Olsen. The only bad performance comes at the very start, from the hairdresser-cum-medium at the seance, but I wonder if that was deliberate? Oh, and eyes open for a fantastic 70s-era De Niro impression. One word of warning, though: Don't search TOO closely for this movie's Red Lights; it was the journey to the reveal and the surprise that comes from it that made this film such an edge-of-my-seat pleasure to watch. Wonderful stuff.
★ ★ ★ ★