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Published : 2012-07-13 18:26
Updated : 2012-07-13 19:10

Here’s one thing the movies get wrong pretty consistently ― the reaction of seemingly rational people upon seeing the supernatural, the impossible, the miraculous.

“Red Lights,” the new film from the director of the nervy minimalist thriller “Buried” (Ryan Reynolds in a box), has great actors reacting exactly the way their characters would respond to things that fall under “This CANNOT be happening.”

There’s Sigourney Weaver as Margaret, the jaded, not-quite smug academic and veteran debunker of the paranormal this or that. At every table that levitates, every disembodied voice in a seance, Margaret has the poker-faced assurance of her credit. When Margaret hears “the sound of hoof-beats, I think ‘horses,’ not ‘unicorns.’”
Cillian Murphy as Tom Buckley in “Red Lights.” (Courtesy of Millennium Entertainment/MCTeye)

She’s spent her life uncovering fraudulent clairvoyants, mentalists, psychics and spoon benders. “I try to understand, not believe.”

She knows that she or her physicist assistant, Tom (Cillian Murphy), will spot the “red lights,” the things that should not be there ― somebody listening in on conversations in the audience before a psychic’s “performance,” for instance.

After thirty years of investigation, eyewitness to all sorts of phenomena, “I have yet to witness a single miracle,” Margaret declares.

Tom is just as fervent a non-believer, but less poker-faced about it. He runs the gadgets that detect the radio signals sent from assistants to their faith-healer employers, pores over video of psychics looking for what poker players cal “tells, the give-aways. But when he sees something he can’t explain, he’s genuinely slack-jawed.

So is Sally, the fetching new grad assistant (Elizabeth Olsen). She is the audience’s surrogate in this world, the one who needs to have everything explained, at least at first.

And then there’s the world-famous spoon bender Simon Silver, played by Robert De Niro with a revival preacher’s passion and fury. Silver is blind, was long retired and is now back in the spotlight in an age when the debunkers are much more sophisticated at outing the frauds. If he isn’t legit, he’ll have to be that much more clever.

Writer-director-editor Rodrigo Cortes sets the tone with his cast and with the film’s overcast look ― low lighting, grey days and gloomy nights. There’s a battle of wills here, between Silver and Margaret’s team, with a more credulous scientist (Toby Jones) caught in the middle, not sure whether to trust his data as he tries to prove that there is such a thing as extra-sensory perception.

But Cortes fumbles his sure-fire recipe’s can’t-miss ingredients, underwriting Olsen’s character and thus under-explaining what is going on, killing off characters we need to balance the struggle and botching some of his “reveals,” the interesting surprises before the “big one.”

De Niro, always a treat even when he’s as over-the-top as he is here, swaggers and blusters, but some of his menace evaporates as his threats arrive through surrogates (Joely Richardson is his agent). Weaver underplays Margaret, giving her an obvious vulnerability that undermines her place in the cultural battle to inform the “want to believe” that they’re just gullible rubes.

But Murphy strikes just the right balance ― fanatic, a guy wholly invested in protecting his belief system, but in awe of what he sees with his own eyes. He even suggests a practiced magician smart enough to not trust those eyes.

“The only way to pull a rabbit out of a hat is to put it here in the first place,” Tom says.

“Red Lights” bogs down in its middle acts, losing track of the epic struggle it sets up, but rallies for a fine finale that most won’t guess until it shows up. It’s a promising film that might have been better, something more in the “X-Files” vein, but that announces the filmmaker as a master of tone and tension, even when his hero isn’t Ryan Reynolds and isn’t buried in a box.

By Roger Moore

(McClatchy-Tribune News Service)

(McClatchy-Tribune News Service)

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