Home > Film > Red Lights

Ho-hum, (Simon) Silver Linings – is De Niro's psychic the real deal or not? Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy investigate…

Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) work at a college, running a low-funded psychology course on how charlatans trick the unsuspecting with subtle techniques and sleights of hand. In between lectures they also practically help debunk 'supernatural' cases, sometimes in private consultations and other times helping the police identify fraud. They look for the 'red lights', the people or objects that shouldn't be there and that then clues to how things may be acheived by clever but more mundane methods.  As Matheson says, it's not that she doesn't believe psychics can't  ever exist, it'ssimply  that in thirty years she's never seen any demonstrable proof that can't be debunked.

When a famous 'mentalist' Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) announces his return to public life after being a recluse (a naysayer journalist had collapsed and died while confronting him years before), Buckley sees him as the big fish – an expose that could secure them more than the meagre funding they survive upon. Matheson wants none of it – she's never forgiven Silver for playing on her emotions about her long-comatose son, but knows how manipulative and dangerous he can be. Buckley, though, seems willing to go to any lengths to find the truth behind's Silver's 'abilities' and vows bring the showstopper's show to a stop.

However with Matheson's health failing and a series of dramatic occurences happening around Buckley, it appears that strange powers may be at work. As Silver grows more menacing, Buckley becomes more desperate and soon the power-struggle becomes violent and unexpectedly bizarre…

There are some genuine jumps and scares to be experienced and a deliberate and effective sense of disorientation thanks to notable sound and film-editing and, to give the film it's due, it rattles along at a decent pace playing its cards close to its chest as to the direction it's ultimately taking.  Is Silver a charlatan or something more sinister? Why is Tom so driven to find the truth? Rodrigo Cortes (Buried) keeps us on or toes and for the first two-thirds the story is sufficiently interesting to pull us along, despite a few moments that  make you roll your eyes. (We see Silver exit his plane and remove his sunglasses so that we can see he's blind, before putting them back on. It makes David Caruso's acting seem positively naturalistic!)  

After a decentish start, Red Lights, frustratingly, is another one of those films that doesn't live up to its promise – and fails to navigate  a decent third act, with minor faults in plot logic becoming gaping and less likely.  It's a very talky film, with wide-eyed people frowning and having intense scenes and deep, meaningful conversations that you analyse for hidden signifance – in the hope that you'll have another 'ahaaa!' moment akin to The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects. While there are arguably clues scattered as to where the film is going, the jigsaw's  final, fuller picture is not one you will probably anticipate, largely because it's simply not the most satisfying. (Without spoilers, it's not the worst ending one could conjur up, but equally, I was sat in the cinema convinced  the film was being cleverer than it actually was and that we were heading towards a different ending, which could have been immensely more satisfying. In fact there are many ways a superior ending could have been realised). What we get is a climax where you'll be scratching your head to make sense of people's actions and a denouement that comes out of left field and doesn't pack as satisying a punch as it thinks it does. For a two-hour film, we're largely left with a sense of  'Really?' and too many supporting characters left dangling in the wind. 

Though filmed in Toronto and Barcelona, there's a decent array of British talent also cropping up in supporting roles. Joely Richardson is De Niro's personal assistant, Toby Jones is an unbelievably biased professor, Craig Roberts (Being Human, Submarine) is one of  Matheson/Buckley's gifted students and Burn Gorman (Torchwood) is a tv panel pundit.  Heck, even Leeds University gets a name-check!  But the material doesn't warrant their particpation.  Richardson, Roberts and  Buckley's love interest, student Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen) have far SO little to do through most of the film that there's a distinct feeling they were added at the last minute to fill-out the running time.  Again, it's a shame these aspects weren't more fully-formed.

Annoyingly, there's a more solid film trying to get out and the distinct feeling that some snippage to running time may have occured – leaving important scenes on the cutting-room floor. (One edit in a scene early in the film feels particularly uneven).  What we DO have on screen is effective to varing degrees. Again, we're consistently told how amazing Simon Silver is, but what we see of the man under the stage spotlight seems one part extrenely trite arrogance, the other part  pretty third-rate hokum. And what exactly does his supposed 'act'  entail – we see him bending spoons, doing psychic surgery, being a clairvoyant, even levitating etc… it's all very vague and cliche, undeveloped and certainly not dynamic for a role so important. We only know he's a charismatic performer  because we're TOLD that, rather than being shown that at any point throughout. At his best, De Niro can mesmerise an audience, but from the evidence Silver's persona comes across as a bargain-basement Derren Brown, albeit with a more expensive line in clothing and a nicer private jet. But this man wouldn't pack out a McDonald's never mind an opera-house.

Red Lights, released this week in the UK and with a limited run next month in the US,  is the sort of film that will pass better muster on the more-forgivable DVD format, but as a cinema release it's just not well enough formed and becomes another frustration – a decent idea on paper, then scuppered by a suspension of disbelief that, if being charitable, does not hang well and, if being less tactful, is just plain silly.  

Mosby's Magic 8-Ball doesn't see massive box-office at this time… ask again later.