Robert De Niro thriller ‘Red Lights’ dimmed by gimmicks, but keeps viewers guessing

“Red Lights,” starring Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver and Cillian Murphy, is a fun caper thinly veiled as a supernatural thriller – a mystery loaded with all the tricks and devices recently made popular by M. Night Shyamalan.

Gimmicks and all, “Red Lights” is an astute psychological puzzle that flows much more naturally than Shyamalan’s recent cinematic litterings.  Writer and director Rodrigo Cortés (“Buried”) gives us a sophisticated, yet uneven, game of cat and mouse – an entertaining debate between science and the paranormal.

Weaver is excellent as Dr. Margaret Matheson, a paranormal investigator (a real life Ghostbuster, if you will) who, along with her assistant Tom Buckley (Murphy) debunks paranormal activities like ghost sightings, séances, mind reading and faith healing by looking for ‘red lights’ -- signs or mistakes that reveal the medium in question to be a fraud.

When Matheson’s arch rival, the blind super celebrity medium Simon Silver (De Niro) comes out of a multi-decade’s retirement to make one final public appearance, Matheson and Buckley see the perfect opportunity to debunk the world’s most famous psychic. However, strange occurrences and doubts arise the closer they get to Silver and his team.

Like a good caper film, the safe to crack is Silver. The loot, proving he’s a fraud. Cortés gives us stakeout scenes, races against the clock and double and triple twists. Weaver and Murphy spend many a scene using their tech to ‘scientifically’ (movie science) and publically expose a variety of paranormal frauds. Cortés nicely weaves and builds suspense through these moments then juxtaposes them with philosophical debates between science and the supernatural interspersed with collegiate battles over financial backing for their projects.

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    Unfortunately the film sidesteps into more gimmicky and traditional supernatural schlock, while exciting in many horror movies, feels obtrusive and unnecessary here. Just the lingering question of whether or not Silver is a malicious fraud is suspenseful enough.  Luckily the film does course correct back to the far more interesting intellectual debate and caper route.

    De Niro is certainly not at his best in “Red Lights” but he is still compelling as the blind and menacing psychic. He isn’t necessarily phoning in his performance but he seems more complacent here with just delivering his lines and then moving along. Though subtle and intimidating through the majority of the film, De Niro ultimately succumbs to hamminess by the end.

    Weaver in a leading role again is the highlight of the film. She has quite a few moments where she’s able to monologue scientific facts or an emotional backstory that lays waste her co-stars. Welcome back, Sigourney!

    “Red Lights” also features the always-wonderful British character actor Toby Jones (“Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy”) as an alternative collegiate rival for Matheson while Elizabeth Olsen (“Martha Marcy May Marlene”) is Buckley’s superfluous love interest and Joely Richardson (“The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo”) is Silver’s chic bodyguard.

    The greatest praise to give “Red Lights” is Cortés keeps us guessing to the very end – and with a film like this, you can’t really ask for much more.