Airport check-in. Perhaps the greatest horror of the modern transport age. Dealing with long lines, heavy luggage, rude travelers and incessant delays are just some of the exhausting trials contemporary America goes through to get to our destination. It is against this familiar backdrop that we enter “Red Eye,” the latest film by legendary horror merchant Wes Craven, whose last few films have been forced by the Government to open in bomb shelters, where their explosive mediocrity wouldn’t harm innocent civilians foolish enough to see them.
“Red Eye’s” lead is the radiant Rachel McAdams (“The Notebook”), who plays Lisa, a fast talking hotel manager returning to Miami on the last flight out of Dallas. While checking in for her flight she meets a handsome stranger named Jackson Rippner (played by reigning uber creep Cillian Murphy, “Batman Begins”). Rippner seems quite nice at first, even gallantly stepping in when another traveler gets out of line with Lisa. What seems to be a simple chance encounter becomes curious happenstance when Lisa runs into Rippner again at the bar across from her terminal.
More small talk ensues over a couple of drinks as Rippner proves to be disarmingly charming, flirting harmlessly about Lisa’s favorite cocktail and his unfortunate name. The two even end up sitting next to each other on the plane, but this fortuitous meeting quickly turns into something sinister, and Lisa’s fear of flying becomes something much worse than she could have ever imagined, as the amiable Rippner reveals himself to be more frightening than the turbulence they are flying through. It turns out Rippner is the manager of a complex scheme involving the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security, and Lisa is an important cog in that scheme.
Wes Craven is a director who, with the exception of the mainstream misstep “Music of the Heart,” has been synonymous with gory slasher films. With “Red Eye”, Craven steers off squarely in the direction of a straightforward thriller, with no ghouls, ghosts and gore in sight. So, has Craven lost his way? Absolutely not. All those years of trying to make us scream (not to mention all three “Scream” films) has taught Craven a thing or two about generating tension and suspense. It’s a given that the premise of “Red Eye” is a bit far fetched, with Rippner’s chosen method to achieve his goal being the most suspect. However, the script is smart and moves along swiftly, barely allowing any time for the audience to contemplate the film’s obvious logical flaws.
Whatever the script’s shortcomings may be, they are easily overlooked due to the riveting performances of McAdams and Murphy. McAdams in particular is a real find and destined for a strong career. Already blessed with natural beauty, McAdams demonstrates strong acting chops to back up her looks. Thrillers usually tempt actors into overacting, but McAdams keeps her character believable throughout. The same can be said for Murphy, last seen as the equally creepy Dr. Crane (aka The Scarecrow) in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Murphy continues to impress in conveying controlled madness, and does more acting with his eyes than most actors do with their whole bodies. At the moment where Rippner’s true intentions are revealed, Murphy transforms from amiable to pure evil with the slightest droop of his cheeks. It’s absolutely brilliant.
But perhaps the best part of “Red Eye” is its simplicity. This is a thriller pared down to the basic elements, with no flashy camera moves, no big explosions (okay, one big explosion) and no extended chases (okay, one extended chase). For the most part “Red Eye” is just two characters going head to head in a game of mental one-upsmanship. Craven keeps the tension high by keeping the camera focused tightly on the two leads, and by keeping the majority of the action contained within the claustrophobic confines of an airplane. Even when the action turns terrestrial, the tension and sense of immediacy never lets up.
The reason “Red Eye” works is because we’ve all been there. We identify with Lisa’s situation, and have suffered the mental anguish of soldiering through a crowded airport only to be trapped in a cramped coach seat next to someone we’d rather not be sitting next to. The final act transitions from taught thriller to full-on slasher, but even here Craven keeps a tight leash on the proceedings, with no superhuman feats of strength or unfathomable coincidence to help the movie cross the finish line.
Wes Craven (director) / Dan Foos, Carl Ellsworth (screenplay)
CAST: Rachel McAdams …. Lisa Reisert
Cillian Murphy …. Jackson Rippner