Red Eye begins with a break-in. A faceless, fast-moving figure slips inside an apartment, takes a wallet, and disappears. The action is so nonchalant, the robbery so unnoticed, that at first it’s hard to tell even what it is. But a few minutes later, the victim (Brian Cox) lets his busy, beautiful daughter know that he’s lost his wallet, and then you know: the robbery and dad are connected, and likely the daughter, Lisa (Rachel McAdams) too. It’s a familiar movie-style set-up, a series of close images that insinuate a larger plot afoot, and yet it is delivered here by Wes Craven, famously adept at this very sort of setup.
Craven’s best known setups, of course, have occurred in slasher movies. That would be the movies where nubile beauties run from figures wielding ungodly large knives or embody any number of cultural fears, domestic uncertainties, doubts about authority, and anxieties inspired by unspeakable violence. For this is the utter ground of slasher movies—screaming victims, brutal assaults, bloody, maimed results—the invention of visual, visceral horrors for entertainment, to distract from real horrors, but also to provide unnervingly legible glosses on cultural terrors.
Red Eye is exceptionally legible. A mostly smart scary movie, it effectively updates the slasher flick to address current fears. The monster here is no lumbering and disfigured nightmare, but instead an attractive, slightly built mercenary, a terrorist for hire. Lisa first appears as she takes her father’s call; she’s en route to her home in Miami, literally mobile to match her figurative inability to keep still. Efficient, focused, and just a little vulnerable following a beloved grandmother’s funeral, she checks in with her father (Brian Cox) and the fancy hotel she manages, via the perpetually harried but always game Cynthia (Jayma Mays in a sharp feature film debut). Seems that Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Charles Keefe (Jack Scalia) is arriving with his perfectly blond family, and only Lisa knows precisely what he needs and when.
Enter the pretty, odiously named Jackson Ripper (Cillian Murphy), “coincidentally” seated next to Lisa after he “coincidentally” met her in the airport. Slight and flirtatious, he’s as ambiguously gendered as any slasher monster, yet normalized When Lisa observes that his name choice “wasn’t very nice of your parents,” he smiles, so slightly, and jokes, “That’s what I told them, before I killed them.” Eeerk. Another of those manifest clues: the guy’s a killer. Pay attention.
If you’re not paying attention (or haven’t seen the trailer that skips right through this part right to reveal the monster on the plane), Jackson’s interest in Lisa might seem sweet and slightly awkward. He and Lisa carefully avoid excessive cuteness and honesty, but both show nice enough faces, movie star faces. Meantime, the camera lays out the space around them, noting who’s in what seat, where the flight attendants hang out, distance to the cockpit. Planes are alarmingly tight locations, the film asserts, and Lisa will have even less room to move than those girls running up and down stairs in monster movies. The pilot notes flying time and weather, Lisa has a scar on her chest and an inclination to help others (indicated when she gives her copy of a Dr. Phil book to a woman on their flight), a little girl notices when Lisa looks worried, a punky kid writes in his journal, and the flight attendants are less than attentive. All these details might be filling up time, or they might be setting up for plotty payoffs.
It’s not long before Jackson’s flirtation turns ugly. “Keeping the focus on you and your dad,” he murmurs when she asks what he’s doing. “My business is all about you.” He threatens to have her father killed (the wallet returns), insisting that she call her hotel and change the Deputy Secretary’s room in order to put him in position for a deadly attack. She tears up, starts to fret, and he keeps her on topic: “Bottle the emotions a little more, okay?” So now she’s not even allowed to run and scream like so many slasher victims. Instead, she spends the flight trying to work around Jackson’s demand, each effort thwarted, each bump of turbulence a potential respite or danger.
While the specifics of the terrorist plot only become more outrageous by the minute (as does Lisa’s response: killing the Deputy Secretary is okay, but his family, that’s too much), it does establish a recognizable and nervous-making context. It also inspires Lisa to resist Jackson’s bullying, stand up for her country, and save her dad. That is, she becomes the Last Girl of slasher films, an action hero, and a domestic defender, all in one swoop.
This multiplication of her roles is only exacerbated when she makes Jackson angry on landing, deciding that she will not participate in the terror plot or pretend it’s not her job to stop it. Her resistance marks her as the ideal citizen, post-9/11. Inexplicably, the professional Jackson takes her defiance personally, and ends up chasing her to her home. This likens him to the horror movie monsters who invade homes (Freddy Krueger among them) and only compounds Red Eye‘s many metaphorical allusions to “homeland security.” Yes, she’s in a slasher movie fighting international terrorists, and yes she calls on her high school field hockey skills to save herself. Tough, ingenious, and completely fun to watch, Lisa makes the narrative absurdities seem largely irrelevant.