Director Rodrigo Cortes lit Sundance 2010 on fire with Buried, and two years later, he's back with another thriller - one with a much more expanded scope. Red Lights follows veteran paranormal expert Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her assistant Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) as they track strange cases around the country, proving them all to be hoaxes. The mysterious emergence of renowned psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) captivates Buckley, and the young physicist becomes obsessed with proving the legend to be a fraud. But Silver and Matheson share a past, and the doctor warns her eager assistant not to get involved. Guess how that turns out?
The acting is terrific from everyone involved, and this film showcases some of my favorite performances of Sundance 2012. Weaver is stoic and steadfast, Murphy is logical but compulsive, and De Niro actually commits to a character in a way I haven't seen from him in years. Sundance darling Elizabeth Olsen returns in a small role, and if you need more convincing after last year that she's the real deal, here you go. (The girl has had an astonishing four movies at the past two Sundance Film Festivals: Martha Marcy May Marlene and Silent House in '11; Red Lights and Liberal Arts in '12.) There are also some shades of Chris Nolan's The Prestige here as Murphy explores the theme of obsession onscreen, and Olsen plays the Scarlett Johansson role in this metaphor, warning him against the dangers of his infatuation.
While there are sequences in which not much physically happens on screen, like an extended McLaughlin Group-style television interview that lasts 5 or 10 minutes, Cortes is still able to make them visually compelling (as one might expect from someone whose last film contained nothing but one man in a coffin). Heavy use of close-ups is perfect for tension building, and though I haven't mentioned it until now, the movie is definitely a thriller. There are some horror-esque moments sprinkled throughout, but as Venkman said when we walked out of the theater, it reminded him of the early works of Roman Polanski. Weird stuff happens regularly, and there's an unsettling quality that seeps into the film even from its early moments, a creepy seance that is frightening to me (and, dare I say, the general public) because of our personal unfamiliarity with those sorts of acts. The score is superb, blending strings and brass in an effective way to heighten the mood at some points and punctuate scares at others. The dialogue is also fantastic, and seeing as how Cortes also wrote and edited this film, it's safe to say he's a filmmaking force to be reckoned with.
But...the ending. I loved the film up until the last two minutes, and then everything came crashing down. Cortes has seemed to carve out a niche for himself in which he angers people with the endings of his films, and this one left me even more confused than angry. It's not so much one of those "it's up to your interpretation" endings, either - I don't want to give too much away, but on a very basic story level, by the end of the movie I'm not exactly sure what happened. Everything is wrapped up very quickly and there's a dreamlike quality to the conclusion, adding to the confusion and disorientation as the story comes to a close. But ultimately, here I am talking about it, so Cortes has accomplished his mission.
Despite the questionable ending, this film is absolutely worth seeing and will almost certainly receive a wide release due to the cast alone. It's a tremendous movie up until the final minutes, and I'll need a few hours to fully digest it, but there's a good chance this will end up on my Favorites of the Festival list.