PLOT Paranormal investigators Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) and Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) cannot resist the temptation to apply their rigorous scientific methods to the showy antics of blind spoon-bender Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), who comes out of retirement for one last series of shows, thirty years after a performance in which a member of the audience – his own harshest critic – was killed.
Having spent the entirety of his last film, Buried, in the company of a single actor confined within a wooden box, Rodrigo Cortés assembles an impressive cast for his second feature, with the headliners joined by Toby Jones, Elizabeth Olsen, Joely Richardson and Submarine’s Craig Roberts. They all have their work cut out for them, selling this over-complex and overwrought thriller, which, in its best moments, combines a Hitchcockian intricacy with the cinematic sleight-of-hand of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige, but more often comes across as a shabby, long-winded episode of The X-Files, with fifty times the budget but a fraction of the wit.
After swiftly debunking a traditional séance, complete with levitating tables and eerie thumps and bumps, Buckley and Matheson show a class of rapt students – presumably studying Parapsychology 101 – how to spot the tell-tale signs, or ‘red lights’, of a con artist claiming supernatural powers. Their investigative skills are given more of a workout exposing the cheap chicanery of self-styled psychic Leonardo Palladino. This they achieve by tuning their radio equipment (which they have somehow managed to smuggle into the theatre where Palladino is performing) to the frequency of a tiny receiver whispering discreetly-gathered information into Palladino’s ear. So far, so fun – however, the preposterous sight of the so-called mind reader being dragged from the stage by angry cops is a red flag that Cortés may not be entirely in command of his material.
And so it proves. When De Niro is wheeled out as a blind, Uri Geller-type mesmerist, setting the stage for a face-off between the mysterious showman and the determined debunkers, Red Lights begins to run out of ideas, forcing Cortés to fall back on thriller conventions such as tortuous plot twists, red herrings, conveniently-revealed backstories, a car chase and incongruous violence, to reductive effect. With a final, fatal flourish, Cortés reveals what’s been up his sleeve all along: an ending so preposterous, it requires the audience not only to suspend disbelief, but hang it by the neck until it is dead.
As M. Night Shyamalan will tell you, the trouble with building a house of cards is that they have a tendency to collapse, suddenly and irrevocably. Despite flashes of inventiveness and the game efforts of a classy cast, it would take a wilier showman than Cortés to impress with this shabby bag of tricks.