By day, psychologist Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and physicist Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) teach at a university. At night, they’re off debunking the paranormal, exposing faith healers and ghost whisperers for the frauds they are. “There are two kinds of people out there with a ‘special gift,’” Dr. Matheson intones. “The ones who really think they have some kind of power, and the other guys, who think we can’t figure them out. They’re both wrong.”
Such skepticism is at the center of Red Lights, Rodrigo Cortés’ follow-up to 2010’s Buried. Where that film held to a bare-bones, life and death premise (Ryan Reynolds in a box), the new one opens out to consider the varieties of experience shaped by belief and doubt. Still, it’s most effective when, like its predecessor, it proceeds with a singularity of purpose without getting bogged down trying to balance too many ideas.
At first, the film keeps its focus. We might sympathize with Matheson and Buckley, who contend daily with a world that seems aligned against them. At their university, they must compete against a professor in another department, Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones), whose experiments to prove the veracity of ESP draw more funding. This situation also indicates that the movie takes place in a heightened reality, if not a downright alternate one, where paranormal activities and parapsychology are of such importance that a university funds not one, but three faculty positions dedicated to researching the subject. In this world, cable news breathlessly reports on every step of a retired psychic’s comeback — which draws sellout crowds in seconds — and someone else’s doubts about him wind up on page one of the newspaper. When a debunked mentalist finds himself not just issuing refunds — he’s sent to jail.
At points, Red Lights appears to approach its topic with skill, becoming an enjoyable horror movie. As Matheson and Buckley pull the curtain back on shrieking mediums and prank-pulling kids, the scenes are good fun, mixing genuinely suspenseful moments with laughs at the expense of the gullible. There’s even hints of a romance between Buckley and a student (Elizabeth Olsen): it starts off sweetly, with Buckley performing amusing sleight-of-hand coin tricks for her, inviting her to believe what can’t be true.
But the movie soon turns more self-serious, specifically when world-famous blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) — he claims to bend spoons with his mind — comes out of retirement. Buckley sees him as a viable target for their ongoing work, and wants to expose him, but Matheson, who has had brushes with Silver in the past, says they won’t be able to figure out his tricks.
Their subsequent efforts provide the movie’s most outlandish ideas. While De Niro’s performance isn’t too extravagant, the movie appears to take his presence as permission to go over-the-top around him. When Silver is on screen, ridiculousness amps up: the floors rumble, glass shatters, metal twists, Buckley’s obsession with the truth gets less and less rational, people act less and less like real human beings, and everyone starts shouting platitudes.
Instead of treating these events as camp, however, the movie presents them as if we should be taking them seriously. And so, at these moments, plot strands are lost and points are muddied. (Remember that hint of romance? Like Buckley’s coins, it mostly disappears.) We start getting speeches about the value of belief and the risk of denying one’s true nature. It’s a slog to sit through.
Red Lights saves itself when it calms down, and a late sequence — presented as an old-school film reel — where Silver submits to Shackleton’s tests, prompting different reactions from the different characters based on their personal beliefs, brings the movie back into focus. As Red Lights works its way to an impressive ending it earns, a bit of trickery that doesn’t feel like a cheat. Still, all of the smoke and mirrors that come before this finale might leave viewers feeling skeptical about the whole thing.