‘Red Lights’: Wrong turn

July 18, 2012

You don’t have to believe in the paranormal to be intrigued by the premise of Rodrigo Cortes’ “Red Lights,” now playing in limited release.

And you don’t have to be a nonbeliever to find the conclusion that this effort-laden film reaches unsatisfactory – indeed, to find it frustrating and disappointing.

Cortes, who directed the claustrophobically compelling “Buried,” seriously expands his canvas this time. He takes on both the paranormal and the debunking thereof, as practiced in academia and beyond. Needless to say, the unbelievers in this story find their certainty tested and questioned. (There’s a similar story upcoming in “The Awakening,” a British period piece starring Rebecca Hall, to be released Aug. 10.)

In this film, the debunkers are Sigourney Weaver, as Margaret Matheson, a university professor who has made a career of studying alleged paranormal phenomena and pulling the rug out from under frauds. Like Houdini, the Amazing Randi and a few others who try to protect the gullible, she and her assistant, Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), know all the tricks and get their professional satisfaction unmasking fakes and charlatans.

But now one of the most famous psychics in modern history, a blind man named Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), has come out of retirement. Well-known as a young man for his ability to read minds, bend spoons and tell the future, he made a fortune, then disappeared. Now he’s coming back to tour again – and Margaret and Tom want a piece of him.

Easier said than done. For starters, Silver is famously reclusive and hardly willing to let Margaret set time, place or, most particularly, conditions for her test. And Margaret also faces obstruction from her own university, where Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones), the chairman of her department, is far less skeptical about paranormal events in general and Silver in particular. If he can land Silver for academic testing, Paul is happy to let Silver set the terms, leaving the university ultimately open to charges of allowing itself to be manipulated and, perhaps, defrauded.

When Margaret suddenly is taken out of the picture, however, it’s up to Tom to try to track down Silver and unmask him. But he lacks Margaret’s clout; all he has are a seemingly unerring instinct for Silver’s moves – and a tenacious (and loud) willingness to get in Paul’s face about the prospects of being duped by Silver.

Does this kind of psychic ability exist? Can human beings possess and access these kinds of mental powers? Anything’s possible, I suppose.

Can Cortes build a puzzle that remains mysterious until he places the final piece, thus surprising and satisfying an audience? No such luck, I’m afraid. In that regard, “Red Lights” (the title refers to warning signs of fraud that trained debunkers should be able to spot) is all tease and no payoff. Or rather, the payoff it arrives at seems contrived and arbitrary, rather than clever and unforeseen.

In that respect, movies like this resemble math equations, a simile I’ve used before. Ultimately, they solve for X – and X can only be one of a couple possible answers. The trick is keeping the audience guessing about which of those possibilities is the actual answer. When it turns out that you’re solving for Y and not for X after all, the misdirection and solution better make sense – in the moment, if not completely. (Hello, Keyser Soze.)

But Cortes is like a basketball point guard who’s been penetrating the lane for the whole game and then suddenly starts putting up three-pointers and missing at crucial moments as the game winds down. By the end of the film, you’ll either be confused, angry or both.

Not that Murphy – and more particularly, Weaver – don’t give it their all. Murphy is an interesting actor who has yet to land a breakthrough role in an American movie (he was the killer in “Red Eye” and the Scarecrow in “Batman Begins”). Here, he’s the opposite of unflappable: hectic, passionate, mostly undirected, it would seem. De Niro is in “Angel Heart” mode, playing dark and mysterious which, to him, is not that different from walking down the street.

“Red Lights” should be one of those movies that you walk out of feeling exhilarated, jazzed tweaked – just generally upbeat about being taken on a wild ride. Instead, you wind up feeling deflated, as though a serious opportunity has been missed. Too bad.

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