Director Wes Craven made his name on movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. His credentials as an efficient craftsman were established long ago, even for those who tend to dismiss his movies with a “Well, if you like that sort of thing …” But Craven’s new movie Red-Eye gave me something I’ve never gotten from him before: the feeling that I was in the hands of a real master.
Rachel McAdams plays Lisa Reisert, the young manager of a Miami luxury hotel (too young, perhaps, but we go along with the premise in the interest of getting things under way). In the first scene, Lisa, on her way to the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, is heading home from her grandmother’s funeral. Carl Ellsworth’s script establishes Lisa’s professional chops by having her field a panicky emergency call from her assistant, Cynthia (Jayma Mays), who has inadvertently deleted the reservations of two regular hotel guests. Swiftly, Lisa handles it; she may look like she’s barely out of high school, but she can think on her feet, and she isn’t easily rattled.
Anyone who has seen Red-Eye’s preview trailer knows that Lisa is going to need all that cool resourcefulness in the night ahead. First, her flight is delayed two hours, and while trying to relax in the terminal bar, she strikes up a conversation with the improbably named Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), who amuses her by guessing what kind of drink she likes. Jackson is sleek and flirtatious, but there’s something a little oily about him that makes Lisa want to keep him at arm’s length, and she parries his advances as adroitly as she helped Cynthia placate the disgruntled guests in Miami.
When finally boarding the flight, Lisa is nonplussed to find that she and Jackson are seated side by side. She’s a little wary; he could be one of those seat-mates who’ll insist on chatting when you’d just rather sleep. But what the heck? He seems harmless enough.
How wrong she is. Once the plane is airborne, Jackson makes his move. His meeting Lisa, it turns out, was no happenstance. He’s been stalking her for some time on behalf of his associates. Now, he tells her, one of his henchmen is parked outside her father’s house, poised to murder the man if Lisa doesn’t help Jackson and friends with their plan to assassinate the deputy secretary of homeland security—who is even now checking in at Lisa’s hotel.
What follows in Ellsworth’s crafty script is like a chess game. Lisa doesn’t meekly submit to Jackson’s demands, but her every attempt to get help or to wiggle out of his clutches is checked and thwarted. Every move raises the stakes, and even some of Lisa’s fellow passengers are unwittingly jeopardized, while Craven tightens the screws with devilish glee. Just when it seems that Ellsworth and Craven have wrung all the suspense they can out of this situation, the plane lands in Miami, and Lisa plays her trump card.
From there on, Red-Eye tears along at breakneck speed. It’s preposterous but deliciously so, and we eagerly suspend our disbelief. Ellsworth and Craven establish a situation that is just real enough to engage our sympathies but just artificial enough that we relish Lisa’s predicament even as it drives her to the edge of hysteria.
Is it realistic? Could it happen in real life? Of course not. So what? The story’s outlandishness is exactly what makes it so much fun—that and the fact that at a tight, frantic 85 minutes, the movie never gives us a chance to ask questions. By the time the dust settles and the credits roll, we may well stop to reflect that both Jackson’s plot and Lisa’s countermoves depend an awful lot on the long arm of coincidence. But by that time, we’ve had such a dandy time that we don t care.
A few months back, I called Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter a Hitchcock-and-bull story. The Interpreter was 45 minutes longer than Red-Eye, sluggish with glossy self-importance. Red-Eye is also a Hitchcock-and-bull story, but this time I mean it as a compliment.