Red Lights is a 2012 Spanish-America supernatural thriller starring Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, and a Martha Marcy May Marlene-era Elizabeth Olsen, but you’ve probably never heard of it before. It only ever played in 18 theaters in the U.S. and didn’t even make back its budget overseas. However, thanks to its current presence in Netflix’s “Popular” section Red Lights is enjoying a bit of a second life.
The premise: A group of investigators (Weaver and Murphy as the old pros, Olsen as the newbie) specializing in debunking paranormal fraud come upon a spoon-bending psychic (De Niro) who just might be the real deal. He’s been retired for 30 years but is in the midst of a comeback. Can they end him once and for all? Or will he prove them wrong?
The skeptics come face to face with something they can’t explain? How very Gillian Anderson in X-Files or Paul Giamatti in The Illusionist of them. I like it. Put that cast with that premise and it’s an instant stream.
Yeahhhh…you should probably think twice before hitting the play button. Red Lights, sadly, is very, very not good. It’s poorly put together, repeatedly relies on old newsreel footage for exposition, and features Weaver, De Niro, and Murphy at their worst. Director Rodrigo Cortes lazily uses shaky cam to connote supernatural shenanigans and leaves his entirely overqualified cast, which also includes Toby Jones in a supporting role, to spew out MST3K-level line readings. It’s the type of film where for no good reason Robert De Niro takes off his black sunglasses in his very first scene just to show us he’s blind, and while taking down a scheming mentalist Weaver makes the same exact “Hallelujah, he’s found the Lord” punchline twice. Before long, you begin to suspect the people here mostly took the work just for the chance to visit Barcelona, one of the primary filming locations along with Toronto and Hamilton, Canada.
But, hey, at least this is all heading toward a De Niro vs. Weaver showdown. Jake LaMotta vs. Ripley. Pretty cool, right?
Nope. They never even share the screen together. In fact, [spoiler], she exits the story halfway through, leaving the rest of the movie to an increasingly (and largely inexplicably) unhinged Murphy to obsessively research De Niro in hopes of proving he’s a fraud. Except, even they don’t share the screen that often, perhaps owing to a (I’m guessing) he-was-only-available-to-film-for-a-couple-of-days issue with De Niro. As a result, their first real confrontation happens with them on entirely the opposite sides of the same room, never sharing the frame nor even really looking at each other. It’s a confusing scene in a film full of them.
The saving grace is that in its final moment Red Lights executes a twist you’ll never see coming. Granted, the twist doesn’t quite pass the smell test, which is partially why it’s so surprising. Still, in the grand scheme of psychic/magician movies Red Lights at least scores points for going in a completely unexpected direction. If you have an hour and fifty minutes to spare to see that for yourself then have it. Otherwise, skip it. The curiosity of seeing these actors in the same movie together passes quite quickly, regardless of how hard Weaver is selling her role as a badass skeptic. There are intermittent moments of quality, such as Weaver and her team using radio frequencies to expose a mentalist’s game, but they are too few.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- Even though I’m clearly not a fan, if you want to track this movie down make sure to put a space between “Red” and “Lights.” There have been several other movies titled Redlight or Redlights. Also, make sure you find the 2012 Red Lights. There’s a 2004 French film of the same name with a remarkably similar poster.
- Red Lights, by the way, is the title because it refers to the kind of thing Weaver looks for her in her investigations. As she tells Olsen while taking photographs of a crowd, “Red lights. Discordant notes. Things that shouldn’t be there.”
- One upside in watching Red Lights: you get to see Grand Piano director Eugenio Mira doing a solid De Niro impression while playing the younger version of his character in an old interview.