Today I’m not going to review a short story, but a movie that failed because its writing was lousy.
Red Lights was both written and directed by Rodrigo Cortés, who can certainly pull big-name talent to his projects. I hope that next time he spends as much energy attracting quality writers as actors.
The problem with Cortés’ script is summed up by The Miami Herald’s Gene Rodriguez:
With the sort of last-minute plot twist that sank M. Night Shyamalan’s career, Red Lights comes to an unexpected, risible end.
Story matters, and directors have no business making movies if they can’t tell a good story from a bad one.
Sigourney Weaver is a psychologist who works with a physicist, Cillian Murphy, to debunk faith healers, psychics, etc.
Robert De Niro, the sinister psychic Mr. Silver, had something to do with the death of one of his critics, which forced him into retirement many years ago. There’s bad blood between Weaver and De Niro: De Niro humiliated Weaver on T.V. when they were younger.
Instead of seeking revenge, Weaver realizes that DeNiro is actually a dangerous man, and she decides to stay away from him when he makes a ‘comeback’. Her green sidekick, Murphy, can’t resist investigating De Niro and ends up debunking De Niro’s performance.
The big twist? Well, Murphy is himself psychic. He’s attracted to debunking as a means to find other people like himself. We find this out at the very end, though clumsy hints are dropped throughout the film.
What makes a hint clumsy? Well, take this one for instance. A female student asks Murphy how his mentor Weaver will answer a question. Murphy correctly anticipates how Weaver answers. The student is shocked: “How did you know that, Mr. Murphy?” Murphy’s answer: “I’m psychic.” Then he beds his student.
It’s a shame that Cortez can’t write, because this movie had a lot of things going for it. The characters of Mr. Silver and Weaver’s Dr. Matheson were promising. Silver (De Niro) is the type of man we should all revile: the type that searches out human weaknesses to exploit. Matheson (Weaver) is a thoughtful character, who’s grown out of her youthful omnipotence and discovered that she is just as vulnerable as the simple people she’d set out to enlighten.
If this had been a film about demagogues and human frailty, it might have been a truly inspired work of art. Instead, it sits on the fence about the interesting issues, and tries to entertain with a stupid twist. We need fresh blood in Hollywood.
So how would I improve this film?
If Murphy must be psychic, then let us know this from the very start. Let his relationship with Weaver grow from her realization about her own limitations. Let Murphy represent hope for Weaver.
Murphy’s struggle with De Niro ought to be an open one. De Niro plays a disgusting character, a character who is willfully evil and who fears what Murphy can do to him. Let De Niro’s fear be based on his one redeeming quality: a twisted sort of humility. De Niro is humble enough to understand that there are forces which, at very least, seem supernatural. De Niro should recognize these forces in Murphy and know that Murphy could use these forces to destroy him. Let De Niro believe that he must destroy Murphy first.
Murphy’s conundrum should be this: he could do things the easy way, by using his superpowers to make De Niro squeal; or the hard way, the way that requires everybody to grow, through reason and science.
Let the meat of the story be about how De Niro is consumed by the forces he exploits. All you need for a satisfying ending is De Niro’s exposure.
There you go! Free of charge.
There were a couple of other points to this story that made me chuckle. Firstly, Cillian Murphy better be careful about being boxed in as a psychologist/psychiatrist/parapsychologist. That’s an awful lot of spooky for one guy.
Secondly, there are plenty of sacred cows in the ‘respectable’ sciences like physics, and let’s be generous, psychology. These cows need toppling. Of course, it’s much more dangerous professionally for psychologists and physicists to go after these issues. The wacko psychics are an easier target. However, I see more danger in the lies that universities tell than those that are told by small-time con-men.