That Spanish director Rodrigo Cortés knows how to direct an English language picture and have its emotional power not get lost in translation is a matter of record thanks to 2010’s supremely gruelling Buried, that single-handedly shored up Ryan Reynolds’ status as a serious actor to the point that not even 90 minutes talking to the Geoffrey Rush Space Chicken in the embarrassing and dull Green Lantern could undermine it.
Whether or not Cortés can also write a compelling English language script, however, has yet to be proven.
For all the effective jump scares and impressive credits of supernatural thriller Red Lights, the clunky, cliché-heavy dialogue and rushed exposition (the two leads basically babble their motivations to each other at the first opportunity) leaves Sigourney Weaver with so little emotional range that she appears heavily medicated, stumbling leaden through the first half of the movie as Margaret Matheson, a world-weary psychologist who debunks fraudulent psychics with the help of her research assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy). Their nemesis, as built up by talk shows and unfurling banners is smug celebrity medium Simon Silver (Robert DeNiro), also with so little to do beyond smirk and rant that he’s left turning in the same practised combination of edgy charm and physical dread he perfected as far back as The Untouchables.
Murphy steps up to lead the film through its dreary middle third and into its dramatic conclusion – again, he’s just delivering his standard performance of fey aloofness and twitchy desperation that made him such an effective lead in 28 Days Later and Sunshine, and such a compelling Jonathan Crane in Batman Begins. Perhaps because we’re used to seeing Murphy in films of this scope, but having DeNiro and Weaver floating around at half-power is incredibly distracting, like having a teacher in one of the roles in a school play.
Close to two hours in length, there has obviously been a lot of research from the filmmakers into the methodology of parapsychology and fraudulent spiritualism, but the first half of the film has little tension or build-up, and only following their first face-off with Silver does the narrative really begin to progress – transforming into a compelling battle of wills between the domineering presence of the medium and the increasingly obsessive Buckley, until the final rabbit is pulled from the hat and it all goes a bit silly, complete with horizon-scanning voiceovers, heavy rain and swelling music.
Compared to The Sixth Sense for more than just the muted colour palette and people not knowing what’s going on, there’s a twist in the final ten minutes – but without the pitch-perfect build up and the carefully laid clues that send you scrabbling back through your memory tank to view old scenes anew, it feels rather like one of those slasher movies where the reveal is that the killer is a character we’ve not met yet.
It’s a well-researched thriller with a competent cast, but competence is for cups of service station coffee or home haircuts.