Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, August 23, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (2005) Part 2

21. Red Eye

“Red Eye” was Wes Craven’s second attempt to break out of the horror genre. After the fiasco that was “Cursed,” who could blame the guy? However, unlike the schmaltzy “Music of the Heart,” “Red Eye” was something a little more palatable to his fan base: A thriller, about a strong woman, a menacing man, and just enough political intrigue to keep it squarely out of the horror genre. The high-concept catch? Most of the movie is set in the high-stakes confines of an airplane.

“Red Eye” delights in Hitchcockian games of misdirection. After a fast paced opening credits montage that sets up all the competing plot lines in a clever, visual manner, we are introduced to our heroine. Lisa, a well-respected hotel clerk, is immediately established as someone who can get things done quickly while maintaining a cool head, no matter the situation. While in an airport, waiting to catch a flight back to Florida, she bumps into Jack. The two have a meet cute right out of a romantic comedy. There is an immediate chemistry between them. Jack invites her over to the airport bar, the two trading banter about their favorite drinks. Cillian Murphy’s glowing blue eyes, manly stubble, and general handsomeness seems to paint him as the perfect romantic leading man.

The romantic comedy the first act seems to be building towards is slowly subverted. Jack has very casual phone conversation, the viewer unaware of the nefarious events being discussed. Once on the plane, when the story truly gets going, his pleasant veneer begins to strip away, revealing sinister intentions. Lisa at first seems uncertain to believe what he’s saying, just like anyone else would. However, Jack doesn’t waver, revealing himself as a cold, calculating psychopath. The middle block of “Red Eye” revolves around the rather irresistible concept of two at-odds individuals having intense conversations in a small, stressful location.

Odds are “Red Eye” wouldn’t have worked without Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy. Murphy is introduced as someone who can take control of a situation quickly, making him the micro-managing McAdams’ perfect foil. Even in the early going, there’s something subtly threatening about his demeanor. Murphy plays the eventual change brilliantly, never altering his straight-froward, slightly sarcastic delivery. It’s amazing how much malevolent intent he can pack into a single glance. With few words, he can quickly deflate the heroine’s hopes of escape. McAdams is someone the audience can root for. In Lisa, she finds a balance between strength and vulnerability, creating a character that is both sympathetic and likable.

“Red Eye” is about something else too. Though it’s a topic Craven has frequently floated around, this film finds the director confronting gender relations as a theme for the first time. Casually, early on, Murphy drops a line about men being driven by facts and women being driven by emotion. The film never puts more of a fine point upon the character’s sexism, instead letting McAdams’ strength and refusal to panic speak as a proper rebuttal. It isn’t long before Cillian is lording his male physicality over her, downing her with an unexpected headbutt. Murphy’s intensity is frightening during a confrontation in the plane’s bathroom, one that implicitly suggests a sexual assault… Something the script makes more blatant. Lisa’s strong personality is the direct result of a previous sexual assault. It’s an unfortunate example of Rape as Backstory, even if it furthers the picture’s themes. There’s no reason Lisa needed a violation in her past in order to make her a strong female character. McAdams’ strong performance does make this turn a little easier to swallow or at least overlook.

A few physical scuffles aside, Jack’s main weapon is his voice. After a brilliant visual reveal, Lisa takes Jack’s main weapon away from him. Without delving too deeply into “Men, Women, and Chainsaws” territory, Lisa disabling her male aggressor with a phallic-shaped pen can’t be unintentional. Lisa’s escape from the plane is helped along by another young girl. While playing into the story’s subtext, it’s also an example of the fine-tuned screenplay, which nicely sets up many small plot details before paying them of in surprising, creative fashion later on.

In the last act, “Red Eye” gets really ripping. Wes can’t keep the entire story limited to one location forever. The story eventually falls into a cycle of Jack threatening Lisa. Breaking away from the plane setting keeps the story fresh. It also turns “Red Eye” into a thrilling chase story. A pursuit through the airport food court is milked for all the tension it’s worth. The finale goes small again, connecting with the movie’s emotional subplot. Cillian’s reappearance, wheezing, glowering, is great. The whole movie builds towards the direct confrontation between these two characters. Both characters cleverly misdirect their opponent. A search through a bedroom keeps the audience guessing and pays off fantastically. Even the political assassination subplot, though little more then a MacGuffin, has a dramatic, exciting conclusion.

Though Murphy and McAdams are the stars of the show, the small supporting cast has its notable members as well. Brian Cox, usually cast as bad guys or spy masters, gets to play a normal guy for once. An early phone conversation quickly sets up the relationship between father and daughter, how one compulsively worries about the other. They are close but both have their quirks. Jayma Mays’ gets to play up her wide-eye adorableness as Cynthia, the neurotic hotel clerk working in Lisa’s stead. Mays’ plays her nervous reactions for decent comedy. I don’t have much positive to say about Angela Paton and Laura Johnson’s small supporting roles. Either aren’t much more then broad stereotypes. Perhaps intentionally, since their characters are credited as Nice Lady and Blonde Woman.

It’s easy to nitpick the film’s story. Was such an elaborate plot really necessary just to change a hotel room? Cell phone trouble, the favorite dramatic crutch of modern horror/thriller writers, are employed dutifully. A rocket launcher gets an overly dramatic introduction. After such a thrilling finale, the movie’s short resolution scene seems a bit underwhelming. And, once again, Marco Beltrami’s score is typically noisy and distracting.

To call “Red Eye” Wes Craven’s last great film is overselling it. It’s a speedy, briskly entertaining genre piece and not much more. However, the director seems really engaged with his material for the first time in a while. He makes great use of the tight plane setting, swiftly panning around the location in inventive ways. A close-up on McAdams’ face while Murphy verbally tears her apart is especially notable. The film perhaps should have opened up an exciting last act to Wes’ career. Instead, Wes went back to horror, applying his still considerable talents to derivative projects. In the future, I suspect “Red Eye” will be looked back on for the gem it is. [Grade: B+]

1 comment:

Sean Catlett said...

I remember Zacharus really liking this movie only because the portrayal of the hotel clerk job was frighteningly accurate.