For an hour or so, Red Lights quietly announces itself as the sort of movie that many viewers have been waiting for. Its brooding atmosphere, suggestion (but never outright depiction) of the supernatural, and deft use of a whole slew of actors who are either underused (Cillian Murphy), on the rise (Elizabeth Olsen), or no longer getting the roles they deserve (Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro) all instill utmost confidence. About a master/apprentice team of paranormal investigators (Weaver and Murphy, respectively) who are in that line of work to disprove the existence of ghosts and otherworldly entities in the name of hard science, it manages for quite some time to be thoroughly engaging. But then something happens (vague spoilers herein): A character whom we come to appreciate in hindsight as perhaps the major anchoring force takes a needless exit and, well, everything just sort of falls apart. If Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried can be said to have taken a simple idea and fashioned an intelligent thriller out of it, then his follow-up to that sleeper does just the opposite: It deals in heady notions whose execution becomes increasingly simple-minded and convoluted throughout.
If you’ve read anything at all about the film, you’re almost certainly aware that much of the discussion focuses on its ending. Before I saw it, someone described the third act to me thusly: “You know that expression ’going off the rails’? This is beyond that. This doesn’t even acknowledge the existence of rails.” And that description was something of an understatement. However gradual the second half’s decline may be, its official jumping-the-shark moment is so jarringly ill-conceived as to immediately erase nearly every trace of good faith Cortés has thus far inspired. There’s no doubting this sequence’s sincerity for even a moment, but this is actually part of the problem: It’s so unreservedly saccharine and off-the-charts bizarre that it seems to entirely forget the story of which it’s supposedly a part. It isn’t at all unusual for a film falling within the confines of horror and/or sci-fi not to live up to the promise of its first two acts (cf. The House of the Devil, Sunshine), but the great heights Cortés reaches, coupled with the astronomical fall he eventually takes, is by turns depressing and laughably ridiculous. That all the good things—and there are several—Red Lights has going for it are ultimately in service of an ending that might even make M. Night Shyamalan cringe represents one of the year’s biggest missed opportunities.
It’s hard not to think of the film through the lens of De Niro in particular. Here, as a David Blaine-type figure who, much to the chagrin of Murphy and Weaver’s characters, comes out of self-imposed retirement in order to prove just how real his mind-blowing powers are, he devotes himself to his performance in a way that’s entirely at odds with the increasingly common perception that he’s simply cashing checks at this point. As with his role in the uneven but somewhat worthwhile Stone, however, he’s swinging for the fences but playing for the wrong team. His and the rest of the cast’s equally impressive performances are ultimately for naught. It seems strange to say of a film that you “have to see it to believe it” and mean it in a bad way, but Red Lights implodes so spectacularly that it’s almost worth the price of admission just to see what all the fuss is about.