Director Rodrigo Cortés had a hit at Sundance a couple of years ago called “Buried,” which must have impressed the hell out of actors. Because for this picture, he signed up Robert De Niro, Sigourney Weaver, Cillian Murphy, Elizabeth Olsen, Toby Jones and Joely Richardson no less.
And Jones and Richardson could probably have been cut from the movie with no harm done.
The story involves a pair of paranormal debunkers going up against a legendary blind psychic and spoon-bender, who has come out of a 30-year retirement to dazzle crowds once again. Cortés wants you to believe that the world would sit in breathless anticipation of this showdown.
There’s even a prestigious scientific committee poised to declare the psychic authentic if he manages a few tricks. Really?
For a while though, the cast nearly pulls off this nonsense. You get a couple of pretty good “credentials sequences,” the sort of preambles to the main story that show how damn good the paranormal researchers are.
Dr. Margaret Matheson (Weaver) has been going after phony psychics for much of her life and even has a university department to chair, albeit a seriously underfunded one. Her sidekick is Tom Buckley (Murphy), who under her guidance has become most adept in finding the red lights, by which he means “things that should’t be there” that tip him off to the trickery behind supposedly supernatural occurrences.
There is even an intriguing back story to Margaret’s previous encounters with this great psychic, Simon Silver (De Niro, of course). She feels he somehow caused the death of one of his critics. He once even sparked a moment of doubt in her, which involves her comatose son on life-support for many years.
Consequently, she wants nothing to do with any confrontation with Silver. But Tom, being a young buck, is having none of that. He wants to go after this great satan.
He enlists the aid of one of their star pupils, Sally (Olsen), and almost immediately the film has those two in bed without benefit of even a hot date. This may, however, mark the point where a reasonably succinct and plausible script starts to wobble.
There is actually no need for any romance in this movie. Nor was there any need for Tom suddenly to abandon his own careful discipline and approach to spotting these “red lights.” Only Cortés seems to want big scenes with heightened emotions, much shouting and visual effects that belong to hokey horror films.
A few plot twists if revealed here would cause spoiler-alert police to spring into action. Suffice it to say the movie gives Silver more credit than he deserves for pulling off black magic. Throw in a gratuitous fight in a men’s room that is almost cartoonish in its violence and birds hurling themselves against windows and the film swiftly falls apart.
Cortés probably is as much a skeptic about psychics as his heroes but he likes having things both ways. He amps up the genre material so heavily that whatever he’s trying to say about paranormal activity becomes incoherent.
And in going for a big-bang ending, he winds up turning the entire film on its head in so ludicrous a manner that you can only laugh. Or ask for your money back.
Opened: July 13 (Millennium Entertainment)
Production companies: A Nostromo Pictures production in association with Cindy Cowan Entertainment, Antena3 Films, Televisió de Catalunya
Cast: Cillian Murphy, Sigourney Weaver, Robert De Niro, Elizabeth Olsen, Joely Richardson, Toby Jones
Director/screenwriter/editor: Rodrigo Cortés
Producers: Rodrigo Cortés, Adrián Guerra
Executive producers: Cindy Cowan, Irving Cowan, Lisa Wilson
Director of photography: Xavi Giménez
Production designer: Antón Laguna
Music: Victor Reyes
Costume designer: Patricia Monné
R rating, 114 minutes