Red Lights is heart-stopping

Oct. 12, 2004, midnight | By Erica Hartmann | 19 years, 4 months ago

A killer escapes from prison during the height of the French tourist season. A couple on their way to pick up their kids from camp separates. The wife disappears. Red Lights is as simple as that but nerve-wracking as anything.

Screenwriter/director Cédric Kahn must have seen The Blair Witch Project, because his film is just as simplistic and about as scary. Neither the plot, nor the cinematography, nor the score go beyond the bare essentials in the adrenaline-pumping thriller.

Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is a heavily drinking but well-meaning husband who, at first glance, cannot compare to his pretty lawyer wife Hélène (Carole Bouquet). She has an air of infidelity that the sympathetic audience would most likely afford her. When the two get into a car and attempt to tackle infamous vacation traffic, the friction is palpable. In addition to being drunk, Antoine is a hair-raising driver (this is, by the way, a great movie for teens to see how not to drive) who does not take Hélène's criticism constructively. Hélène gets out of the car when Antoine stops yet again to get a scotch, and she is not heard from again. Antoine then offers a ride to a convicted murderer who has recently escaped from prison.

The dialogue is not that engaging, and for those who don't speak French, the subtitles are flawed, but the actors' faces are so startling that the raw emotion behind the story comes through with astounding power. Somehow, Darroussin can portray pure fear, pure anger or pure joy using only his facial expression. His talent alone makes the film horrifying.

In addition, the clarity in Red Lights heightens the tension. It is obvious that the hitchhiker is a murderer and that he had something to do with Hélène's disappearance. It is obvious that Antoine is in imminent peril, either from his own obscene drinking or his passenger's threatening capabilities. The outcome is, however, completely shrouded and never hinted at in the slightest.

Of course, the dizzying camera shots of the road from Antoine's violently swerving car are also quite frightening, as are the seedy barflies he meets along the road, the fact that a gas station attendant sells him a bottle of scotch and that the escapee can change a flat tire with one hand.

The urban American will raise certain complaints with this film. For example, Antoine has this inexplicable tendency to leave his car doors unlocked, even with the keys in the ignition. Also, the practice of picking up hitchhikers is all but passé. Last but not least, the title is bizarre and seemingly irrelevant until the French title (Feux Rouge, which translates to stoplights) is revealed.

Despite these cultural differences, Red Lights is a brilliantly minimalist, petrifying film.

Red Lights runs 106 minutes and is not rated in the United States. It is in French with English subtitles and is playing at the E Street Cinema.

Tags: print

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