Friday, October 12, 2012

Red Lights

Two hotshot college professors (Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy) are the go-to debunkers of bogus supernatural phenomenon. When not teaching what appears to be an awesome class on the subject, they spend their time going around exposing charlatans; you know, phony psychics and people pretending their house is haunted and the such. One day, a former celebrity psychic (Robert DeNiro) whose supposed powers were never disproven comes out of retirement . Can our intrepid heroes take him down a notch? Could he be the real deal? What's up with all this strange, unexplainable shit suddenly happen to our heroes? And why does Weaver seem so reluctant to take on DeNiro?

I'm not going to lie, this movie catered to some of my interests, so I was on board right away. The first act or so is basically just mind porn for atheists and skeptics: Weaver and Murphy go around exposing frauds, explaining their tricks, and authoritatively asserting the fact that all this supernatural mumbo jumbo is a bunch of horseshit. I could have watched a whole movie about that. Hell, I could watch a TV series about these characters. So score another point for Rodrigo Cortes, who also directed the awesome Ryan-Reynolds-in-a-coffin movie Buried.

I suspect that Red Lights might seem slow to some audiences. Although the stakes do get raised significantly as the movie goes along, many folks might not see why it's such a big deal they disprove this psychic. Religious and superstitious folks might even take offense at the attitudes and actions of Weaver and Murphy's characters. Personally, I was emotionally invested, not just because of my own biases, but because of the strength of the performances, and the way the characters are developed to explain why this conflict becomes so important.

Which isn't to say that this movie is all talking and character development and no action. There is danger, a little bit of violence, death, intrigue, unexplainable phenomena and horror movie imagery. It's just that more of the entertainment comes from exploring the tension between the rational and irrational. The profs explaining how con men do their tricks. The weird things that start happening to Murphy (like birds flying into windows right at him) and whether or not that have a logical explanation. A viruoso sequence, presented as a documentary, where scientists examine DeNiro's supposed abilities.

The thing about a lot of these horror movies where a skeptic tries to disprove some sort of supernatural event is that the skeptic is almost always wrong. The ghosts will turn out to be real, or best case scenario the movie leaves it ambiguous, because who really knows the truth, right? (Ugh). Movies are so shy about ever coming down on the side of the skeptics; it never turns out that it was just a con all along. I don't want to spoil Red Lights, but it's one of the few movies I've seen that really, seriously weighs the skeptical argument and gets you on their side. As you watch it, you will actually believe that there is a good chance that DeNiro will turn out to be a phony.

Of course, you realize then that the movie can only end one of two ways: either DeNiro is a fake and psychics don't exist, or he is the real deal and they do. If he's for real, then that's kind of a disappointing because the heroes were wrong the whole time. If he's not, that's cool but it's not much of a surprise and might feel a little anticlimactic. Amazingly, Red Lights manages to find a third option that I never considered, one which blew my mind a little. Not everyone is going to like it, but if you're willing to follow this movie where it goes, it's an enormously surprising and satisfying ending that, I think, plays fair by its own rules.

Rating: B+

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