When it comes to good mystery thrillers that fly under the radar, one of the first that always comes to my mind is Red Eye. I have to tell you, before I watched it, I had a sinking feeling I wasn’t going to be impressed. I just figured it would be one of those run-of-the-mill attempts at a suspense film that feels superficial and one one-dimensional. But guess what . . . I own a copy. I don’t spend money on a film that I don’t intend to watch more than once, and I’ve watched Red Eye quite a few times.
I really like Cillian Murphy. Before this film, the only movie I’d seen him in was Batman Begins, but that was enough to draw me to Red Eye. He’s really good in the former, so I was very curious to see what else he could do. Murphy serves as the film’s antagonist, Jackson Rippner. While he’s already exhibited skill as a villainous figure with the Scarecrow, Murphy still manages to exhibit considerable versatility. With Rippner, he doesn’t just channel Dr. Crane; he shows you a different kind of bad guy. A different kind of scary.
Rachel McAdams hands in a solid performance of her own. She plays Lisa Reisert, manager of a swanky hotel, who’s just trying to get home after her grandmother’s funeral. She’s also the unsuspecting victim and eventual unlikely heroine. If not for the combined acting skill of McAdams and Murphy, this movie might not have been nearly as interesting. Wes Craven deserves a lot of credit as well for his direction. He takes a plot that could have elicited a blase reaction and uses Murphy’s and McAdam’s talents to really give this picture some unexpected depth.
These days, the whole in-flight misadventure business might seem a bit old hat. However, this is before Snakes On A Plane and Non-stop, so the airborne crisis scenario isn’t quite exhausted yet by the time of Red Eye‘s release. In light of that, I’d say it’s fair not to take too many originality points away.
At first, Jack and Lisa just appear to be two strangers who happen to be waiting to board the same flight. Before you know it, they’re actually sitting next to each other on the plane. They just seem like two people drawn together by coincidence and mild interest, but there’s something dark at work. What I appreciate about the execution here is that this encounter starts out feeling kind of like a serendipitous chick flick, but you can still sense the underpinning creep factor. He’s thoughtful, assertive, helpful, friendly (though maybe a little too curious). They keep bumping into each other. Maybe it’s meant to be! He projects a trustworthy personality, develops a rapport with her, then BAM. Bait and switch, baby. Suddenly what seems like the beginning of a pleasant relationship is spiraling into a nightmare. It’s so abrupt, so out of the blue that the emotional, psychological shock has poor Lisa reeling, and as the viewer, you can’t help feeling sympathy for her.
Turns out, Jack is orchestrating a high profile hit job, and Lisa is a key piece in the operation. Her back is against the wall as her own father’s safety is being leveraged against her. The stakes are clear – cooperate, or daddy gets it. One of the more commonly used devices for incentivizing a protagonist, maybe, but it serves its purpose.
What makes Red Eye satisfying is that it doesn’t just rely on thrills and chills. I was on the edge of my seat the first time I saw it, but it’s the combination of that and the fact that the script actually gets you invested in the characters. That’s not something you always get to experience in a thriller. The clash between Jack’s cold logic and Lisa’s emotional state is fascinating to watch. In Lisa’s case, this is personal for her on several levels. Not only does she have her own father’s well-being to think about, but she’s even acquainted with the intended target of the assassination. It gets even more personal than that, though. You find out later that she’s been used and abused before, and she’s decided that she’s had enough. Despite Jack’s condescendingly callous insistence that she be a good little girl and do as she’s told, Lisa is determined to level the playing field. Against all odds, she’ll try anything she can to preserve the life of her father (Brian Cox) as well as that of the target, defending and standing up for herself in the process. She won’t just settle for keeping her dad alive, she’s going to swing for the fences and aim for the win/win. That’s pretty remarkable.
Like I said before, I expected something one-dimensional, so I was pleasantly surprised to see Red Eye not just develop its characters, but think outside the box (or the plane cabin) a little. The tension between Lisa and Jack isn’t exclusive to the plane ride. In fact, when the flight lands, you hit the ground running. The situation escalates rapidly from here, and it’s exactly the kind of fast-paced payoff you need to make the whole experience worth your time.
Red Eye isn’t exactly spotless, however. Lisa has clearly had one crazy, traumatizing day by the end of the movie and is understandably at the end of her rope after being stretched to the limits of her sanity. After all of that, she still has a couple of unreasonably disgruntled customers to deal with. In a clumsy effort by the film to show us she’s done taking crud from people, she calmly tells these rude folks to fill out a comment card and . . . ahem, stick it where the sun don’t shine. Maybe they don’t know what kind of day she’s had, but that’s still a very ungracious way to treat paying customers. While this response could be thought by some as redeemable because she’s also standing up for her assistant manager, it’s still excessive. It’s far from ruining the whole picture, though.
With a run time of less 90 minutes, Red Eye doesn’t overextended itself, but goes just beyond bare bones by providing a layer or two for its simple anatomy. That’s nothing to sniff at. While the last couple minutes make for a less-than-graceful finish, the film still demonstrates through Lisa’s opposition to Jack that surviving and doing the right thing don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Could it be ranked among the greatest mystery thrillers? That’s probably a stretch. But for a movie I expected to watch just once and pretty much forget immediately after, Red Eye has a lot going for it.
Red Eye is rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and language.