Remember the Ghostbusters? In “Red Lights,” Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy play a pair of paranormal sleuths dedicated to busting those who would have you believe in ghosts, telekinesis and other supernatural activity. Their hoax-exposing antics are compelling enough thriller fodder until one realizes writer-director Rodrigo Cortes is more committed to pulling the rug out from under his audience than he is to telling a good yarn. By constantly undermining the suspension of disbelief it so tenuously struggles to maintain, this otherwise slick pic could require reshoots to restore it to something commercial crowds are willing to take seriously.
On “The X-Files,” Mulder and Scully wanted to believe; here, professional skeptic Dr. Margaret Matheson (Weaver) and pretty-boy protege Tom Buckley (Murphy) are content just to understand. Convinced that a rational explanation exists for everything others attribute to psychic phenomena, the duo divide their time between the classroom and the field, driving long hours to debunk out-of-the-ordinary occurrences.
For the most part, the two make swift work exposing the frauds who come before them, looking for “red lights,” or conspicuous behavior con artists use to dupe their gullible targets. Matheson can see through the tricks of most any psychic, except for one, Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), a milky-eyed mentalist whose alleged powers range from bending spoons to inducing a heart attack in his fiercest critic. Shrewdly relying on De Niro’s star power to create a larger-than-life adversary, Silver’s introduction and the subsequent buildup to his public performances are easily the strongest aspect of a film that does its best to remain this side of hokey for most of its running time.
On the side of science, Weaver’s an old hand at playing such no-nonsense characters, while Murphy struggles to fill the familiar mold of someone so dedicated to his preexisting beliefs that a rude awakening is sure to follow. Cortes’ slippery script further suggests the potential for conspiracy by bringing additional players into Matheson and Buckley’s inner circle, including Elizabeth Olsen as an unnecessary lab assistant/love interest and Toby Jones as a squirrelly rival eager to validate Silver’s abilities, though their presence serves only to make the film longer.
“Red Lights” works best when it sticks to deconstructing the tactics of psychics and mesmerists, delivering much the same pleasure as watching a magician reveal his tricks, though the pic loses its way when trying to flesh out its protagonists. A confusing backstory involving a family tragedy and comatose son do more to cloud than clarify Matheson’s motives, while third-act revelations about Buckley’s character are nothing short of ludicrous.
Instead of adding to the experience, the pic’s ill-conceived twists amount to a severe miscalculation on Cortes’ part. Determined to out-surprise M. Night Shyamalan, the helmer betrays the spirit of skepticism that drives the film’s first 100 minutes, asking audiences to swallow an ending so unbelievable, it sabotages all that has come before. In his previous film, the coffin-set thriller “Buried,” Cortes demonstrated a wily gift for creating suspense under the most limiting circumstances; the jolts in “Red Lights,” limited by neither space nor natural laws, feel cheap by comparison.
One of the few working directors legitimately practicing in the Hitchcock vein, Cortes prides himself in toying with viewer expectations, killing off a key character early and staging a fight scene that forces us to grit our teeth while Murphy absorbs a dozen punches to the face. But there’s an inherent shlockiness to his style that undermines the story at every turn. Once credibility vanishes, the whole house of cards collapses, and the experience goes from guilty pleasure to outright howler in the span of its final reel.