Of all the hustlers who present cheap tricks as "magic," few are more shameless than filmmakers. Under the cover of "It's only a movie," directors and screenwriters exhort the gullible to believe in ghosts, telekinesis, extraterrestrials and such.
Intriguingly, Red Lights starts by taking a contrarian position on the topic. Its protagonists are two academics, Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy), who debunk the supposedly paranormal. Two-thirds of the way through, however, this skeptical thriller turns credulous. All that charlatan-unmasking, it turns out, was just a setup for introducing a character who might actually possess mind-over-matter powers.
That person could be Simon Silver (Robert De Niro), an Uri Geller-style spoon-bender who announces his return to public appearances after a long retirement. He has tussled previously with Matheson, and she seems to fear him. Buckley is intent on exposing Silver, for reasons that writer-director Rodrigo Cortes doesn't reveal until the final moments. The payoff isn't all that lame by ghost-story standards, but it does betray the movie's original outlook.
The action begins with Matheson and Buckley's visit to an old dark house. The house's new inhabitants believe it to be haunted. An ominous seance ensues, but it concludes not with an exorcism but an explanation. The two investigators know how easy it is to make a table "levitate," and for an accomplice to produce scary noises from another room. Always look, they caution, for the "red lights" that conjurers use to distract their dupes from what's really happening.
Cortes, the Spanish filmmaker who entombed Ryan Reynolds in Buried, proceeds to discredit several other not-quite-supernatural gambits. With Mission: Impossible-like precision, Matheson and Buckley lead a police raid on a theater where a performer, prompted by his assistants through an earpiece, is pretending to be a mind reader and faith healer. (The cops obligingly arrest the fake, which rarely happens in real life.)
If Matheson is wary of Silver, she's openly dismissive of Paul Shackleton (Toby Jones), a university colleague whose pro-psychic research is much better funded than her rationalist work. In one set piece, she easily demolishes a Shackleton experiment that, he supposes, demonstrates the existence of ESP.
The two naysayers acquire a small team, including Sally Owen (Elizabeth Olsen), a student who becomes, with suspicious ease, Buckley's protege and lover. Then Matheson disappears, and Red Lights becomes a duel between Buckley and Silver. Cortes continues to challenge magical thinking, but ultimately submits to it. The only mystery is which of the characters will turn the screw of the twist ending.
Set in an unidentified city that hints at being Chicago, the movie was filmed in Barcelona and Toronto; the cast is heavy on Britons and Irishmen who simulate American accents. (Only Joely Richardson, playing Silver's manager, keeps her natural tones.) This placelessness is a problem, since it makes even the least supernatural scenes feel a little eerie. Plausibility is also compromised by Cortes' stilted dialogue, which includes lines no native English speaker would utter.
The director makes canny use, however, of his stars' established personae: Weaver is a prim pragmatist, while De Niro is cocky, charismatic and potentially dangerous. Murphy, who has played more than his share of loonies in his film career, gives his investigator a manic edge.
Ghostbusting viewers may also be a little crazy by the time the movie ends, their lucidity teased and then taunted by Cortes' fake-out. But at least Red Lights concedes that most people who claim paranormal abilities are frauds. That's a start.