Director Wes Craven surprised absolutely no one earlier this year with his sapless take on the Werewolf genre, Cursed. It's been pretty much par for the course with Wes, who's made his living pedaling monsters, villains, and bloody slashers. These days his name is still said with something almost resembling reverence, though after Vampire in Brooklyn I'd be hard pressed to tell you why. Chock it up to residual love for Freddy Krueger. With Red Eye, Craven actually seems to be trying something different, maybe even cerebral. Red Eye is a thriller in confined spaces, two people sitting next to each other engaged in a life or death battle of wits. Or rather, that's what it is until the plane lands and Wes goes back to what he knows best… running and screaming. Hey, at least he tried.
Most of Red Eye takes place on a plane, the best parts anyway. Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is on her way home to Miami from a funeral in Dallas. The Dallas airport is predictably a hellish mess. She's taking the late-night red eye, and as usual the thing is delayed. While hanging around on line she meets Jackson (Cillian Murphy) whose last name is Rippner. He uses his parents' unfortunate sense of humor as a punch line, but this is your first clue that hey maybe this guy isn't alright. They bond over airport nachos, and when their flight is finally boarded discover they're sitting next to each other. "Are you stalking me?" he asks her. Of course she isn't, and of course he is.
Their plane takes off in a wonderfully restrained, realistic sequence. The aircraft is almost always shown only from the interior during the film, and I love the way Craven shakes it and bumps it around during turbulence or takeoff. The engine sounds that go along with it are unusually well done too, unusual in that they are even noticeable. Maybe this should be a given, but the airplane actually sounds like a 747. Craven does a great job of putting you right there in that cramped compartment, as if you're hanging around in the aisles.
The aircraft levels off, and Jackson leans over to tell Lisa a secret. He knows everything about her, and if she doesn't do exactly what he tells her, her father (Brian Cox) will die. Jackson is not exactly Freddy Krueger (just a hard working terrorist), but there's something disturbing in his cold, stark eyes. Lisa is understandably convinced. Should she cooperate her father may live, but others will die. The plane becomes a battlefield of bottled up emotion as Lisa stalls and searches for escape. It's here that the film works best, carried entirely by two really talented young actors. Murphy, in a surprisingly deft turn makes Jackson utterly charming, sincere, and definitively evil. Rachel McAdams is all at once luminous and desperate, creating a determined yet still human heroine. And they have chemistry together, of a strange and twisted sort, mutual head butts notwithstanding. If only they'd stayed on the plane.
Eventually though the plane must land, and when it does the movie starts falling to pieces. Craven abandons the more cerebral game being played between captor and captive in favor of his trademark horror movie arsenal. His old tricks are back in use, and he hands Jackson a horror movie super-sized knife. To McAdams credit, even when slogging through the script's most rancid action moments, she keeps the audience rooting for her. In fact, this may sound crazy but I wouldn't mind seeing her take a stab at a character who is a legitimate action hero. But then perhaps that'd be a waste of her considerable talents. Let's stick with films that require actual acting instead of running and shooting. In the end Red Eye gets silly, but by then we're so invested in Lisa as a character that you'll be too busy worrying about whether she'll get taken out to stop and wonder what the heck is going on here. It's only later, when remembering how good the film was hovering over an airplane seating aisle that you'll question where that better movie ran off to.
After a string of misses Wes Craven has finally returned to making something worthy of his reputation. Though the final act is a letdown, most of Red Eye works well as a simple, creative little thriller filled with resonance. Think Phone Booth if the last ten minutes of that film had been spent with Colin Farrell fist fighting the villain. No doubt for his next movie Wes will be back to his worn out horror tricks, but for seventy five out of eighty five minutes he's taken a welcome side trip.