Most horror films are dedicated to the proposition that females are prey and little else. Wes Craven’s RED EYE does indulge in one or two of such clichés as well as one or two others, including having its leading lady, Rachael McAdams, strip down to her bra in the first fifteen minutes of the film. Yet, it remains that rare work that celebrates female empowerment without resorting to Xena-like excesses. In other words, while indulging in flights of thriller fantasy, it keeps the empowerment strictly based in the real world, making it all the more effective, and all the more empowering.
But enough about subtext.
Craven has produced a work that starts slowly and deliberately, building the creepiness as the story raises the stakes for Lisa, a perky and efficient people-pleaser making her way home after a family funeral. There might be another one in the offing as the charming stranger (Cillian Murphy) on the red-eye flight from Dallas to Miami with whom she’s thrown together seemingly by chance turns out to have an agenda other than nooky on his mind. Lisa works as the upscale resort hotel shortly to be visited by the director of Homeland Security (Jack Scalia), and there are people, never identified, who would like to take him out. Lisa has the pull to move him to a convenient room for the operation to succeed. She also has a father (Brian Cox) to whom she is greatly attached and who, unbeknownst to him, has an assassin with a big knife sitting outside his house waiting for the word on whether or not Lisa is willing to play ball with the bad guys.
What begins as a claustrophobic exercise in fear played out in silent tears, whispers, and cold-eyed threats turns into a hair-raising race against time. It happens so subtly that when all hell breaks loose, and it does, the audience is all the more engaged, and all the more invested in Lisa and her plight. Tight close-ups and the desperation of being truly cornered by fate give way to desperate gambles played out with a squirm-inducing tension that occasionally supersedes the instinct to breathe. McAdams and Murphy are the reason, along with Craven’s exquisitely calibrated sense of mood and pacing. The former playing the part with the necessary intelligence and heart, equally aware of her hopeless situation and of her implacable need to find a way out, the latter slipping easily from adorable man on the make to strictly deadly business, even adding a delicious dash of peevishness when his target turns out to be tougher and more resourceful than he planned on. For much-needed and well played relief from the tension, there’s Lisa’s assistant, Cynthia (goo-goo eyed Jayma Mays), who faces every crisis from lost reservations to bomb threats from the same threshold of dithering high panic, and Cox, puttering around his character’s big lonely house like a lost panda bear, fretting about Lisa for all the wrong reasons and passing the time with a sit-com marathon on cable.
There are moments here when it is all but impossible to sit passively as red herrings abound, and the sense of something awful about to happen permeates both the screen and the psyche. Make no mistake, Craven understands that in all good thrillers, anticipation is, and should be, worse than the follow-through. If bits and pieces of the story strain credulity, never mind, it’s all in good fun, and it does nothing to make RED EYE anything less than a gem of its genre.