No bleary eyes during this surprisingly tense little number.
So then. Wes Craven. When a director originally hailed as the saviour of indie horror and latterly as the father of post-modern ironic horror counts a three second cameo appearance in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back alongside an ape as his greatest recent achievement alarm bells should be ringing. He can moan all he likes about Cursed having been chopped to pieces in order to harvest a PG-13 certificate, but it's a well-known fact that you can't polish a turd. Quite the surprise, then, is Red Eye, which sees Craven eschew his traditional strain of horror in favour of a psychological thriller-type deal which, for the most part, involves two people talking on a plane with no werewolves, no axe murderers and no eejits in white plastic masks hiding beneath their black bed sheets with mum's kitchen knife. Most surprising of all is the fact that on the whole, Red Eye is one of the most entertaining pieces of cinema I've seen all summer.
Given scriptwriter Carl Ellsworth's limited TV credentials (Buffy, Xena, Animorphs and... erm, Cleopatra 2525 anyone?) it's perhaps no surprise that the setup here is rather contrived and a little bit messy. What is a surprise is that once the ball gets rolling it does actually work very well indeed. Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is the suspiciously young manager of a popular five-star Miami hotel who counts amongst her current guests the likes of the US Secretary of Defense William Keefe (Jack Scalia) and his family. Keefe's stay is scheduled for an abrupt cancellation however if Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) has his way. Rippner's business is leverage, and in this case he engineers his way into the seat next to Lisa's on the red-eye flight to Miami with the nefarious intention of having her move Keefe to a room where blowing him up with a heat-seeking missile (seriously) will be more convenient for his colleagues. To this end he threatens Lisa with the prospect of returning home to find her dear father Joe (the ubiquitous Mr. Brian Cox) rendered bereft of life in the most painful way imaginable.
Of course it's all a bit silly, but then we are living in an age where all the simple, high-concept plot devices have pretty much been sucked dry, and in all fairness both Ellsworth and Craven handle the material with aplomb, never settling long enough in the first half hour to afford the audience time to question the unlikely nature of the plot. By the time we get on board the flight and Rippner's true nature is revealed we've pretty much swallowed the bait whole, and if you'll pardon the pun it's here that the movie really takes off. Ellsworth shows a surprising understanding of what makes this kind of a scenario work, and his script plays on the claustrophobic environment surrounding Lisa to fine effect. In this kind of scenario it always turns out best when people have the sense to keep things simple. An aircraft is just about as closed and limiting an environment as you're going to find, so rather than try for action in a Passenger 57 styleee, Ellsworth has the good sense to focus on character and Craven the competence to back him up sufficiently in his direction so that proceedings never seem dull nor contrived enough to detract from the building tension between hunter and hunted.
Where the film succeeds best though is in it's casting choice. As Reisert, the young Miss McAdams does an admirable job of injecting her character with just the right levels of vulnerability and, when the occasion calls, determination to succeed. It's unlikely to win any awards for anyone involved, but as a showcase for her talents Red Eye goes some way to proving in the wake of comedies such as Mean Girls and The Wedding Crashers that McAdams has prospects beyond straight supporting roles. It's Murphy, however, who steals the show once again after a suitably creepy turn in Batman Begins, this time turning that cartoon malevolence into a genuinely unsettling portrait of a man willing to do anything to anyone in order to get his cut of the cash. For a character of such limited motivation Murphy certainly manages to add depth to Rippner's facade. It'd be easy for any actor to deploy a simple, one dimensional portrayal, especially given the scant regard paid by Ellsworth's script to building back story and motivation. Rippner, it seems, is simply a nasty man, but Murphy injects him with a sinister and genuinely unsettling demeanour that belies something else going on behind the scenes, tangible enough for an audience to grasp yet sufficiently vague as to never be pinned down.
For the first hour or so Murphy's deceptive portrayal of the deadly Rippner is largely matched by Craven's direction. As the unsuspecting Reisert builds a relationship with Jackson, Craven plays on the chemistry the two share in order to rope-a-dope the audience when the big switch comes. While it's unlikely many of the audience will have either missed the trailer or failed to have seen the character reveal coming, it still feels surprising as we have by this point been lulled into relative security by Murphy's charm and Craven's sense in holding back the theatrics. With the director resisting his usual shock tactics and instead allowing the characters to build the story, Red Eye is a far more effective beast than you might expect, even if the final act does lose some of it's momentum as the flight lands and tense word play gives way to a lightly jaded action finale.
Still, while it may descend into ever-so-slightly disappointing stalk 'n' slash territory, we can forgive Craven this minor indiscretion on the strength that by this point he has managed his best hour of filmmaking in years. Red Eye beats the chronic Scream trilogy (The Oneliner refuses to buy the "post modern" bullshit) by a clear aeronautical mile, and on the strength of his work here it's neither unlikely nor unwelcome that Craven might steer clear of the confines of horror in future and spread his wings that little bit further. Who'd have thought that in the dullest cinematic summer of recent years Hollywood's de facto pinata would emerge out of genre with one of the most pleasantly surprising thrillers of the year. I thank you, Mr. Craven. You have given my morale a much-needed boost. Have an extra star, sir.
I award this movie 4 out of 5 Units We Use
Cillian Murphy (Jackson Rippner)
Brian Cox (Joe Reisert)