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Non-Review Review: Red Lights

With Buried, Rodrigo Cortés demonstrated a skill for executing a Hitchcock-esque high concept. While it wasn’t an entirely successful experiment, it demonstrated that Cortés was a talent to watch. His follow-up, Red Lights, affirms that potential, though it also fails to entirely deliver on its fascinating high concept. Cortés shows a real talent for the technical craft of direction – for framing his shots, use of colour and light and space, pacing and even editing. Writing, directing and editing this film, he demonstrates skill with big ideas and high concepts, as well as skill on a frame-to-frame basis. However, he’s still missing some connection between the two – some intangible skill at developing big ideas into dramatic story beats to fit his own style of film-making. That’s not to say that Red Lights isn’t a fascinating a well-crafted film, just to explain that there are some fundamental flaws.

Do you believe?

It’s very hard to talk about Red Lights without discussing the ending. I won’t spoil the film, but it’s impossible to discuss Cortés’ effort without some fleeting acknowledgment of the third act. After all, that is what everybody will be talking about after the credits role. I’ll try to talk about it in the vaguest possible terms, but it is probably going to be the “make or break” moment for the film in question. I sense that audiences are going to split on this.

I suspect that some will see it as a logically signposted conclusion to a film that lives by its own observations on the art of “para-science” or “frontier science” or “pseudo-science” or whatever you call it. It is, as a plot point, technically well set up during the movie’s first two-thirds. However, I also expect that the larger majority of viewers will see it as a twist that undermines the more potent themes of the film, and radically undermines the heart of the story in question. It also leaves some story beats and mysteries unresolved, the inevitable result of populating a movie with red herrings.

Murphy’s Law…

Personally, I’m somewhat split between the two camps. I expected something like the ending, as it feels like the only way for the movie to resolve itself, by it doesn’t mean that it fits any more comfortably with some of the interesting points raised beforehand. That isn’t to suggest that it’s quite as lame or shallow as an M. Night Shyamalan ending, but just that it fits as best an ending can, but that doesn’t mean it fits well. Whether or not the film is for you will depend on how forgiving you can be, and how accepting of a sharp swerve.

Still, last things first, I suppose. Once you get past the inevitably divisive ending, Red Lights is actually a fun and thoughtful little thriller. It feels like something of a strange spiritual companion to Prometheus, an exploration on the role of faith and belief in a rigidly rational world. It follows two paranormal investigators who travel the country on minimal funding to debunk crazy paranormal phenomena, sort of like a reverse Mulder and Scully.

A class act?

And, of course, that movie feels like something of a rigid contrast to The X-Files, perhaps offering an illustration of some dynamic pop cultural shift that occurred in the years since the nineties. Cortés does invite any number of comparisons to the cult television show: a male and a female who are mocked by their colleagues investigate strange phenomena throughout America. Cortés even frames the movie sort of like an extended episode of some such show: there’s an opening stinger that establishes the ground rules, and a then a quick credit sequence filled with thematic and surrealist imagery.

That said, it’s the differences that are the key. Cortés’s film borrows the iconic poster that adorned Mulder’s basement office, but with one significant change. Mulder’s poster of the UFO read “I want to believe.” That was so nineties, a desire to infest faith in the concept of something larger and more meaningful than the directionless present. In contrast, the poster here reads “I want to understand.” In the modern world, faith is an inherently risky concept, because we know it can be allocated very poorly indeed.

It’s hip to be square…

While Mulder (enthusiastically) and Scully (reluctantly) crusaded to prove that America was just a bit more magical than mundane, our two heroes here campaign to prove that poorly-invested faith can be very harmful indeed. The movie powerfully and effectively reveals the type of characters they investigate – those in search of fame and money (and power), and willing to do whatever it takes to earn it. They give people false hope, which is harmful because it prevents them dealing with reality.

Cortés actually has some great observations here. We spend a lot of time watching events through the prism of the American media. The film stock seems to constantly shift, creating the impression we are watching daytime television, archive recordings, current affairs and news, and even video evidence. All of this offers a look at how mass media seems to react to these claims, and how they play into this cycle, feeding off faith as much as any of those charlatans turning over millions of dollars in the space of a month.

Blind ambition…

Indeed, even the scientific establishment is complicit in this culture, Cortés suggests. We’re told that the funding for our leads’ research department is half that invested in more sensationalist pseudo-science that is repeatedly and effectively debunked. When a psychic agrees to submit to what we’re told is rigourous scientific testing, he’s greeting like a rock star arriving at a concert. Although reporters are present, the university is more interested in defending its own corporate interests than in freedom of information.

We’re told that the department will exclusively record the events unfolding. The resulting film is… somewhat less than coldly rational. Indeed, it opens and closes with what look like movie credits, including the copyright notice in roman numerals. It’s fitting of course – the department might argue it’s hard research, but it plays like a cheesy infomercial. There’s some powerful and delicious commentary here about how the establishment effectively enables such predators, in the search for sensationalist and radical stories.

Dead tired?

Still, while Cortés handles the big ideas well, his scripting does suffer a bit on the finer points. Our two leads seem to have been together a while, but they talk to each other like they’ve just met – because they need to provide handy exposition to the audience. Character blunt out and explain back story in clumsy monologues, and Cortés seems to rush through this sort of essential character work to get to the meatier stuff. And the ending – while it ties up a lot – doesn’t resolve every loose end. It seems like the script was almost written on the fly, to provide the most dramatic tension from moment to moment, and the ending was constructed as the most plausible manner of retroactively connecting everything.

Although, to be fair, Cortés does help mitigate his scripting difficulties with a superb cast. Cillian Murphy is, as ever, a wonderfully solid actor – while it doesn’t stand out as his best performance, Murphy does a wonderful job creating a seemingly tragic character with a minimal amount of material to work with. Sigourney Weaver is superb, especially with the somewhat clunky dialogue she’s given. She actually seems to be enjoying herself, which is great – and she works really well with the rest of the cast. Robert DeNiro is grand. He’s about as good as he’s been in ten years – which is not that great a compliment, but hopeful represents the beginning of an upward trend.

Light of his life?

However, Cortés’ supporting cast is arguably just as strong. Joely Richardson is great in an admittedly small role, while Toby Jones is perfectly cast as the easily-misled pseudo-scientist who just desperately wants acceptance. Elisabeth Olsen is having one hell of year. While this isn’t anything nearly as strong as her turn in Martha Marcy May Marlene or even Silent House, she again makes the most of an under-written supporting role. I’ll readily admit that Cortés’ cast compensate for a lot of the nuts-and-bolts problems with the scripting.

Cortés’ own direction does the rest. It’s always beautifully stylish, without ever seeming vacuous. Cortés has a wonderful knack for creating atmosphere, and even manages to deliver a few decent “jump” scares without resorting to any cheap tricks. It’s interesting to see a paranormal film that doesn’t rely on excessively quick editing to be effective, and Cortés keeps the movie tight enough that you don’t dwell too much on the plot holes until after you’ve left the cinema.

Is he spooked yet?

Being honest, I still think Cortés is a director with huge potential. And you can see that here. Red Lights is a surprisingly solid paranormal thriller with some fundamental problems, all of which are eclipsed by the movie’s ending – an ending that will split audiences into a “love it” or “hate it” camp. I think Cortés has it in him to direct a powerful and classic thriller, but I’m not so sure he has it in him to write it – at least not yet. I’ll still be there when he gets around to it, though.

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