Twist and Shout
Warning: This review reveals a major plot twist
What an odd little thriller Red Lights turns out to be; we may even have to invent a new label for it, a kinder movie perhaps – delicious packaging with a cheap surprise rattling around inside. With its final reel contortion, a film that wears its intelligence like a full body disguise, unzips, to reveal something like Sloth Fratelli from The Goonies.
It appropriates rationalism, using it as a device to manage the prejudices of audience members who are somewhat sceptical about creaky old supernatural thrillers, only to debunk itself at the close. It turns out it was an old fashioned bit of hokum all along. The world is a fantastic place after all, full of inexplicable phenomena. Rub your rabbit’s foot, stroke your St Christopher and thank the fates, except this is an idiot’s ending; the easy out. It’s a cruel trick.
For nearly two hours we’re teased with the possibility that this is a mystery, rather than a fantasy; a quest to unveil the charlatans who prey on the superstitious and desperate. Sigourney Weaver’s psychologist and Cillian Murphy’s physicist, rationalists both, makes all the right noises, and will not be dissuaded, even when Robert De Niro’s showman returns to the scene with a glitzy, explanation defying, phantasmal brouhaha. Weaver has a lot invested in debunking De Niro: she’s opted to keep her accident victim son in a vegetative coma, rather than consign him to eternal nothingness, and is driven by her scientific principles to shame this peddler of false promises. Murphy, her aid, is equally driven, but when we when discover why, the film’s IQ is cut in half.
Murphy, we learn, is the psychic version of a repressed homosexual who joins a hate group, so he needn’t come out of the closet. Long before this reality shattering revelation, we’ve long known something was amiss. Why, we asked, if De Niro actually had powers, as the film suggests for most of its running time, would he so violently resist Murphy’s investigation? Why kill his partner, or use his mind to destroy Murphy’s office, or turn birds into kamikazes, if he was legitimate? Surely it would, by definition, be impossible to disprove? Yes, the actions of De Niro and his retinue only make sense if he is indeed a fraud and fears exposure. The revelation that Murphy’s brought these phenomena upon himself, a sort of campaign by his gifted subconscious to shore up his denial, gives credible motive to De Niro’s character but makes the rest of the film senseless.
It’s an incredible leap; something Murphy’s own character might have referred to as pseudo-psychology. What a pity that Rodrigo Cortés felt the need to throw a bone to the woolly minded. Was there not a gap in the market for a supernatural thriller with a real world explanation? The mechanics of illusion, after all, are of greater interest than the illusion itself. De Niro’s Silver infers as much when he demands of Murphy, “how did you do that?” The movie’s driven by that question. The deferred pleasure is in our anticipation of the answer. But answers there are none, just a form of intangible mysticism.
Many movies opt for that approach – to ride bare back on the fantastical, but seldom does the same film offer a more tantalising alternative, or an in-story reason for why a different approach might have yielded a more satisfying payoff. Weaver’s character puts it succinctly; why would you go looking for otherworldly explanations when the real answers are so fascinating? Why indeed.