Seeing is deceiving.
Look beyond the obvious and you might glimpse writer-director Rodrigo Cortes’s sleights of hand in this intriguing thriller, which follows two paranormal investigators as they debunk fraudulent mediums, mind readers and ghost hunters through the appliance of rigorous science.
Red Lights promises far more than it delivers, turning a narrative screw for the opening 45 minutes that teasingly hints at invisible, dark forces at work in a bustling metropolis.
When one exhausted homeowner tells the paranormal investigators, “You can’t begin to imagine what’s going on here,” he might as well be speaking to us.
Savvy audiences who enthusiastically devoured The Sixth Sense and its supernatural kin will enjoy piecing together the puzzle, searching for clues in nervous glances and ominous silences between the characters.
Once Cortes reveals his elaborate and impressively grand design, incredulity supplants fascination, culminating in an oddly underwhelming big reveal that plays on our perceptions.
Dr Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) has devoted her life to probing paranormal phenomena and exposing the trickery behind supposedly wondrous occurrences.
Flanked by her trusty assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), she travels the world, discovering the simple truth behind a haunted house and exposing a spirit guide called Palladino (Leonardo Sbaraglia) as a charlatan.
She shares her experiences by lecturing university students including Sally (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ben (Craig Roberts) but Margaret’s unerring scepticism pits her against Professor Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones), who believes science cannot explain everything.
“After 30 years, I have yet to witness a single miracle,” Margaret tells him coolly.
Out of the blue, the investigator’s great adversary - spoon-bending blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) - comes out of retirement and embarks on a lucrative theatre tour with his agent Monica Handsen (Joely Richardson).
Tom feels passionately that Margaret should debunk Silver but she urges caution.
“Stay away from him. He’s dangerous,” she warns with good reason.
Tom’s insatiable curiosity creates friction with Margaret and the closer he strays towards Silver, the more powerful the blind psychic becomes, putting the paranormal investigators on a collision course with disaster.
Red Lights builds on the promise of Cortes’s second feature, Buried, starring Ryan Reynolds as a US truck driver trapped inside a wooden coffin deep in Iraqi soil.
This film has loftier ambitions and a starrier cast, eliciting strong performances from Murphy, Weaver and De Niro, who savour barn-storming monologues that reveal another piece of the convoluted conundrum.
Olsen, who was mesmerising in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is wasted in her underwritten supporting role as Tom’s love interest.
Tension of the first half dissipates as Cortes engineers his earth-shattering finale, replete with flashbacks to earlier scenes that slyly foretold of the destruction to come.
By Damon Smith
:: SWEARING :: NO SEX :: VIOLENCE :: RATING: 6/10
Released: June 15 (UK & Ireland), 113 mins