It's rare to see a movie with a decent premise fall apart as thoroughly as Red Lights does in its final act. This is largely due to an ending so monumentally dumb that it can't help but tank everything that came before it. Director Rodrigo Cortés may have scored points with genre fans with his last offering where he buried Ryan Reynolds alive but some of that good will is definitely squandered here.
Before I go off on a rant about the film's stupefying climax, let me exercise some restraint and start at the very beginning (a very good place to start). Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are paranormal investigators with a twist. Rather than entering haunted houses with an arsenal of cameras and acting terrified for no particular reason (like every supernatural reality show these days), they are actually in the business of debunking paranormal claims. Their manner is serious and academic which makes sense considering they are college professors who also teach classes on the subject of scientific skepticism. Whenever they are approached by someone who has witnessed unexplainable phenomena, they show up armed with their diagnostic instruments and cold, hard logic. By paying attention to the little details which seem out of place a.k.a the red lights, they are able to offer rational explanations for everything they encounter.
It's tempting to think of our lead duo as a pair of Scullys in search of their Mulder. That short-changes Matheson whose complexity and depth is brought to life in a wonderful performance by Weaver. You see, Matheson really wants to believe. She simply hasn't been given a reason to...yet. If she could locate just one example of true paranormal activity, she'd have some faith that there was more to life than what meets the eye. This doubt takes on grave importance when you take note of her comatose son whom she is unwilling to take off life support for fear of the great unknown. This is where world-famous mentalist Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes into the picture. After being in retirement for 30 years, he wouldn't return to the public eye unless he had something to prove, right? Buckley believes that Silver is the one that got away and decides to bust him but Matheson remembers her last unsettling encounter with the psychic and wants no part of it. If Buckley wants to prove that Silver is a phony, he'll have to do so without the backing of his mentor and by putting himself and his loved ones in harm's way.
When I step back and look at the film's central conceit, I have to admit that it is catnip for genre fans (including myself). A pair of professional debunkers going up against a psychic (who may be the real deal) in an escalating battle of wits...what's not to like about that? The strength and novelty of the idea easily carries the bulk of the film before Cortés is required to give a proper resolution (which is when it crumbles completely). The opening stretch which sees Matheson and Buckley demonstrating their prowess, first with a scared family dealing with a poltergeist and later with a hokey faith-healer who can hear more than God's voice in his ear, are exciting and riveting. Weaver commands the screen with her intelligence and Murphy is utterly believable as her right-hand man who has learned from the best in the business.
Even the moment where Buckley emerges as the lead because of Matheson's reluctance to take on Silver bolsters the mounting tension. After all, for someone as smart as Matheson to be afraid of a psychic, he must have more than cheap tricks up his sleeve. Unfortunately the magnificent lead up is slowly squandered as Cortés thrashes about trying to find purpose. De Niro's restrained and menacing performance suddenly becomes loud and hammy. Science and logic take a backseat in a hard-to-swallow carnival orchestrated by one of Buckley's colleagues played by Toby Jones. You can tell that things aren't going to end well when the film's climax features a drawn-out (and unbelievably brutal) bathroom brawl between Buckley and a mystery assailant. With every sink and toilet bowl that is broken, a little bit of hope vanishes that Cortés will be able to save the day with an appropriate finish.
And then it happens...the big twist. Already battered and bruised, the film receives its death blow in the form of one of those mega-twists that require a montage just so you can thoroughly appreciate just how badly you've been duped. It's clear that Cortés is reaching for an emotional response but he does so at the expense of all the logic that has been painstakingly built up until this point. Unfortunately the twist is so left-field that even the montage isn't successful in forcing it down our throats. It's annoying to be on the edge of your seat for much of the film only to leave it wondering why you sat down in the first place.
Although I have a sour taste in my mouth, I must give credit where it's due. Coming from the claustrophobic design of Buried, it's a pleasant surprise to see just how well Cortés collaborates with cinematographer Xavi Giménez to use the expansive environs of this film. Large auditoriums have never felt as intimate and ominous as they do here. Also, the performances are largely engaging. Weaver is the best part of the film but Murphy manages to hold his own when the focus shifts. De Niro is brought in for his star power but imbues Silver with a bit of unexpected pathos. Elizabeth Olsen has little to do as Murphy's love interest but she handles herself just fine. With everything the film does have in its favor, it's a shame that Cortés didn't notice the red lights in his own script which prevent the film from being an unqualified success.