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Red Lights (Cedric Kahn, 2004)
Red Lights only further confirms what Iíve previously suspected. Cedric Kahn is undeniably a world-class talent. Itís obvious after seeing three of Kahnís films, each of which manages to be a gripping experience despite wildly different approaches, that the director is far more deserving of the ďMaster of SuspenseĒ mantle than just about any contemporary director. Constantly raising the level of tension, almost imperceptibly, is clearly his forte. His ability to ground his genre exercises in recognizable feelings and everyday situations only makes them more convincing. Like the nail-biting final act of Catherine Breillatís Fat Girl extended, mercilessly, to feature length, Red Lights uses vehicular stress to exacerbate the effects of the in-car dramas. From the start of the movie, which takes place entirely on the course of what should be a routine road tip, thereís so much set-up and mood-building that itís obvious that the tone will soon grow much tenser. There are shots of the crowded roads, highway safety warnings issued by the powers that be, and a briefly glimpsed motorist, stranded on the side of the road next to her smoking car.
Similarly, from the start first scene we meet them, thereís considerable unease between the husband and wife. She shows up late. He has too much to drink. Each rankles the other merely by being present. When the husband looks at a picture of his wife and children, the camera beings to pull in, creating a foreboding atmosphere before its presence is even rational. Some might cringe at such manipulations, but in the suspense genre, I donít mind being led along if I feel Iím in the hands of a capable director. The husbandís reckless driving starts a strain of passive aggressive behavior in the wife, which only further spurns him on. Heís clearly emasculated when he feels he has to sneak in a drink behind his wifeís back, so in retaliation, he grows outwardly aggressive toward her. When Kahn introduces news reports about an escaped fugitive, itís obvious that itís only a matter of time before he factors into the plot. Red Lights is predicable in many ways since itís so identifiably a genre film, and genre films have certain tendencies, but that doesnít make it any less enjoyable to watch unfold. When the other shoe finally drops and the fugitive turns up, though, Kahn inserts his trademark humor into the situation, resulting in unpredictable shifts in tone. The husband is filled with a sense of renewed independence and thrilled with his regained power to make lousy decisions. He revels in that state, at least until his imagined kinship with the fugitive takes on the same dimensions of his one with his wife, and he finds himself being browbeaten again (this time literally!). He considers the fugitive a comrade, and fancies himself something of an outlaw, but when he begins to describe his situation to his newfound friend, the fugitive promptly falls asleep. Because of Kahnís talent, weíre with the husband every step of the way, though, always able to understand his actions, even if weíre capable of analyzing them at an objective distance. The mixture of fear and exhilaration he feels when passing through a police roadblock isnít logical, but it is completely understandable, and when he succeeds, the audience feels a bit of that joy too.
Throughout Red Lights, Kahn is clearly in control of our emotions. He utilizes the symmetry of the highway (cars travel in rows, after all) to full effect, instilling in us a sense of order that will obviously be corrupted soon. His tight, crisp edits and mannered compositions function similarly, presenting visual organization so tidy that dramatic inevitability promises they will soon be upset with mayhem. The way that Khan introduces that mayhem, however is original enough to catch you off guard. Thereís a genius scene in which the protagonist places a series of phone calls. All along, the audience can follow his train of thought. As the level of tension increases and the sense of danger rises, the shot duration gets shorter and shorter, until the anxiety is excruciating. Other highlights include a surprising fade to black followed by an agonizing wait until a crucial plot event is revealed. Khan teases the audience afterward by shifting to idyllic shots of the skies and pastures, but itís all in good fun. The third act moves in radical, surprising directions, finally adding some emotional depth to the tale while it mines thrills out of the charactersí future. The protagonist learns the hard way that his bad decisions have consequences, but those mistakes also pave the way for a redemptive form of justice. Though the ending of Red Lights arrives with less incident than I had expected, by that time I was mostly grateful that Khan was releasing his iron grip on my nerves.