One of the ingenious promos for Red Eye sets up the film as just another Hollywood rom-com, with Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy batting eyelashes at each other in the check-in lines and waiting areas of an airport terminal. But then the advertisement pulls the rug out from under us, revealing a very sinister card up its sleeve. The flair of the devious promo is impressive, but what’s truly remarkable about it is how in sync it is with the moral and emotional predicament of a hotel manager, Lisa (McAdams), when she meets a mysterious stranger, Jackson (Murphy), at a Dallas airport, falls for the man’s calculated smooth-talk, and realizes shortly after sitting next to him on a red eye flight to Miami that his job is to “overthrow governments.” A game of cat and mouse is in effect from the beginning of the film, only Lisa doesn’t know she’s been playing; for anyone who was duped by the film’s promos, the young woman’s crisis becomes fiercely identifiable. Her panic, like ours, reflects the fears and uncertainties of our political moment.
Red Eye is a model of swiftness and efficiency, shrouded in a veil of secrecy; its pleasure lies in that very veil being lifted and revealing what lurks beneath, in this case an empowerment fantasy conflated with a political parable. When Jackson tells Lisa that he’s on her flight to Miami in order to get her to help him assassinate the country’s Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, a guest at the hotel she manages, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t comply when Jackson holds her father’s life over her head. But a scar on the woman’s chest points to a sinister encounter from her past—and her resistance to Jackson’s demands evokes a fierce form of defiance. Smart as he may be, Jackson unknowingly feeds this force of resistance with lines like “I didn’t mean to invade your personal space”—he keeps hitting the same raw nerve and, in effect, summons a revolution.
With its crackerjack premise and nail-biting delivery, Red Eye brings to mind last year’s Cellular, another nifty B movie about the interconnectivity of our human experience. Here the focus isn’t the web of telecommunication that keeps us connected but something a little less tangible: female intuition. The passengers aboard the film’s red eye are a motley crew of schmucks, but among them is a little girl who is conscious that something is amiss between Jackson and Lisa. Along with Lisa and the co-worker she is forced to incorporate into Jackson’s assassination plans, this girl helps to form a trifecta of female solidarity against a sinister male threat (for sure, it’s telling that his last name is Rippner). In this way, Red Eye summons all sorts of turf wars. The political baggage in the story may seem beside the point, but it’s something onto which Lisa’s empowerment ritual is engraved. When she screams “not in my house” her bold cry resonates not only as a defense of country but body as well.