Dir:- Wes Craven
Starr:- Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy, Brian Cox, Jayma Mays
WARNING:- Potential Spoiler material below, as well as criticism of the acting ‘talents’ of John Travolta and Nicholas Cage that may offend fans of both.
Red Eye for a large part of its extremely economical running time works as a cinematic paean to the service sector employee. Wes Craven seems to be taking a leaf from the directorial handbook of Don Siegel, as within the first five minutes of the movie you have been introduced to all the significant plot elements, but just don’t necessarily know how they will all intersect. The plot revolves around Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), a front-of-house manager for a prestigious Miami hotel, who at the movie’s opening is returning from her grandmother’s funeral. Lisa is the kind of service-sector professional who is so used to fielding the individual demands and requests of particularly difficult guests that she has developed an almost sixth sense for recognising and resolving a problem before it has even been thought of as such. In comparison to Lisa, the callow trainee Cynthia (Jayma Mays) takes the arrogance and rudeness of certain guests far too personally and there is actually a wonderfully written scene in which McAdams gently chides Lisa for bad-mouthing a rather obnoxious couple, even though Cynthia has said this to Lisa well out of the residents earshot. Craven isn’t necessarily painting Lisa as some saintly paragon of professional dignity and virtue, but these early exchanges over the phone and then in the airport terminal – the flight is delayed causing lots of customer service headaches – do help to establish her character as a decent, hard-working individual deserving of an audience’s affection. It helps that McAdams is one of the most radiant young actresses operating in Hollywood at the moment, although it might help her career to find roles that explore her undoubted acting talents more than her obvious beauty and charm.
A similar problem would seem to affect the Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who takes the male lead as the clumsily named Jackson Rippner – woefully explained in a barroom encounter early in the film. Murphy is one of the most striking actors currently working in Hollywood, yet his glacial blue eyes and almost feminine facial bone structure, have often counted against him in the casting stakes. I’ve a theory that with male actors as good-looking as Murphy there is a tendency to try to work against the typical romantic/heroic leads that they might well be cast, in favour of brooding anti-heroic or villainous figures, as if they associate such roles with ‘serious’ acting. In Red Eye Murphy is very much the villain of the piece, but for upwards of 45 minutes he plays the role of a cool, calculating charmer to near perfection. Seemingly flung together by fate, and a hefty airline delay, Lisa and Jackson strike-up a tentative rapport, that trades quite nicely in understated sexual chemistry. When it becomes abundantly clear that Jackson isn’t trying to woo Lisa, but rather has a much greater vested interest in making her acquaintance, that low-lying sexual energy adds a little bit of spice to the emerging threat of violence.
Despite the fact that the object of a thriller is to maintain a bit of mystery in terms of plotting, Craven is a smart enough filmmaker to appreciate that mystery isn’t synonymous with vagueness. Throughout the twenty-minute build-up to boarding the flight Craven’s kinetic editing moves back and forth between Lisa, Jackson, Lisa’s father Joe (a brief cameo that reminds you of just how great an actor Brian Cox is), Cynthia, an organised group of terrorists and a whole cavalcade of passengers who may, or may not, be in on some kind of conspiracy. At times the movie toys with tension and paranoia in much the same way as Stanley Donen’s classic Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn thriller Charade, as armed with the knowledge of the nefarious activities at the opening of the movie it is difficult to consider accidental coffee spillages and dottery old ladies as anything other than elements of a conspiracy. It also doesn’t help that the film’s furious first twenty minutes are so littered with little red herrings, that it could have quite easily served as an alternate title.
Aside from the nuts and bolts plot economy, there is also a Hitchcockian quality to proceedings that for the first half of the movie doesn’t seem like overstatement. Craven, a former Humanities Professor, has always made genre works that are highly effective at mixing in more cerebral elements, with The Last House on the Left having some wonderfully murky morality at play in its final third and A Nightmare on Elm Street doing more than most other horrors of the time to ‘normalise’ the supernatural occurrences within the shadowy realm of dream. With Red Eye he proves that he can create and manage subtle elements of fear and tension, whilst eliciting some surprisingly authentic moments, such as the reactions of the young girl before the coffee is spilled upon Lisa, or the careful attention to customer service protocols by the cabin crew (“Thanks for your patience”).
However, the film also points up a bizarre schizoid temperament in Craven, that similarly derailed movies like The Serpent and the Rainbow and New Nightmare. Just as the tension has reached breaking point the movie goes from being a fast-paced, intelligent and relatively plausible thriller, to being the kind of whizz-bang, cliché-ridden horrorshow that might just feature John Travolta or Nicholas Cage being overindulged by a callow director, enabling them to deliver a variation on their usual wide-eyed, muppet expression, slice of ham performance. It beggars belief as to why a director would set about sabotaging such a carefully structured opening, by deploying, in the final stages of the film, the usual stock thriller detritus that has little-or-nothing to do with ‘reality’, such as exaggerated mobile phone inactivity (what mobile phones do you know that flash up in large lettering ‘LOW BATTERY’ and ‘NO SIGNAL’?), jumps in the space-time continuum (how on earth does Murphy get from the airport so quickly?), or preposterous action set pieces (a bazooka assault on a hotel from the sea, or an extremely dubious pen-inflicted injury). In the case of films like the recent Red, such cinematic hyperbole doesn’t seem so out-of-place with the general tenor of the film. Yet after having gone to great lengths to construct a filmic reality that exhibits a striking degree of verisimilitude, such decisions become increasingly hard to justify. Thankfully, Craven is savvy enough to keep that running time mercifully short (under 80 minutes if you discount the hefty end credits) and Cillian Murphy, in particular, should be grateful that Wes at least knows how to edit a performance, as Murphy’s villainous turn in the final third of the film verges on the Travolta/Cage club, replete with a ridiculous silk scarf (stolen from a female passenger to hide the non-existent hole in his throat). All in all what started off as an assured drama-thriller, with two strong leads and a good supporting cast, boils down to yet another brainless thrill-ride, that might well fill a few hours on a dull and dreary winter night, but not much else. Rachel McAdams clearly still hasn’t found what she’s looking for.