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A pair of top paranormal researchers face their greatest challenge when they set out to discredit a powerful and mysterious psychic in ‘Red Lights’, a taut and original psychological thriller from award-winning writer and director Rodrigo Cortés (‘Buried’).
Dr. Margaret Matheson (Sigourney Weaver) and her partner, Tom Buckley (Cillian Murphy) are the world’s foremost investigators of paranormal phenomena. Professional skeptics, they have debunked dozens of fraudulent mind readers, ghost hunters, faith healers and the like by detecting what Matheson calls “red lights,” subtle clues to the trickery behind each of these “supernatural” occurrences.
But when the legendary blind psychic Simon Silver (Robert De Niro) comes out of retirement after 30 years, his once-fearless adversary Matheson warns Buckley to back off. Suspecting that the charismatic, spoon-bending mind reader was involved in the mysterious death of his most vociferous critic three decades earlier, she considers him far too dangerous to confront.
Buckley remains determined to discredit the hugely popular and seemingly genuine Silver, however, believing that doing so would cement his reputation and guarantee funding for Matheson’s and his research for years to come. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with his mission, Buckley enlists the aid of his star student, Sally. Together, they employ a dazzling array of high-tech tools to unlock the secrets of Silver’s abilities. But the closer they get, the more formidable Silver becomes—and the more Buckley begins to question his core beliefs. Science and the supernatural collide to play on audience perceptions as the researchers’ quest for the truth builds to a mind-blowing conclusion.
Sally Owen, Buckley’s prize student, is played by rising star Elizabeth Olsen. Olsen has made her mark in Hollywood with remarkable speed, starring in three critically acclaimed films in 2011 (‘Martha Marcy Mae Marlene’, ‘Silent House’, and ‘Peace, Love and Misunderstanding’). But those films had not yet been released when Cortés cast her.
“I didn’t know anything about her or her work,” says the director. “I auditioned many actresses and she was just the best. Even though I wrote the lines, it seemed like she was inventing them as she went along. You cannot catch Elizabeth lying; she works from authentic emotions. She brought so much light to the character, which is needed as Tom’s mood grows darker and darker.”
Throughout ten and a half weeks of shooting in Barcelona and Toronto, Cortés maintained a breakneck schedule in order to achieve the complex visual montages that define the film. “‘Red Lights’ is stylized but sweaty,” he remarks. “The film is full of visual and emotional contrasts that make the growing threat both terrifying and absolutely authentic.”
The visual style deliberately underscores the idea of duality that drives the film, says Cortés. “It is about certainty and uncertainty. As you watch, the audience, like the characters in the film, will think they are standing on solid ground, and then suddenly the earth will open up under their feet. The characters are trapped in a complex and contradictory labyrinth in search of themselves as much as anything outside.”
Cortés says his intent is to place the viewers in the characters’ shoes so that they will call into question everything they see. “Filmmaking is in large part about managing point of view to make people feel and believe what you want them to,” he explains. “Reality doesn’t matter; real time doesn’t matter. You can stretch time or compress it. It doesn’t have to be real—it just has to feel real. You have to create a reality that works for the screen and the rules of real life don’t apply.”
For Cortés the trickery employed by the charlatans in the film is a perfect metaphor for filmmaking. “It’s about stage magicians playing with the same tools as filmmakers,” he says. “In creating movie reality, you make people swear they saw things they never saw. You misdirect them in order to surprise them. You make them look at your left hand so you can steal their wallet with your right.”