Thursday, January 26, 2006

Does Any of This Need to Be Done on the Airplane? : RED EYE (2005)

With the exception of the first two Scream films, Mr. Wes Craven has never made a film I admire or can recommend as "good." With Red Eye, his track record remains unchanged.

I love when thrillers of all stripe are as unbelievable and outlandish as their makers can dream them to be. I believe we all do. That's the startling theme of Brian De Palma's most brilliant meta-thrillers. That's why Hitchcock noted that his films are "slices of cake," not "slices of life": not only are they perfect entertainments, but they don't mirror reality. We don't criticize North by Northwest as ridiculous only because it posits itself as ridiculous. This is why David Fincher's The Game kind of works for me, but Panic Room doesn't. Invite careful examination of your narrative reality, and the average dope can tear apart the plot of any thriller. The trick is to not invite that questioning.

Spoilings Ahoy!


Post-9/11 security fails utterly,
where only a plucky girl succeeds, in Red Eye!

So Red Eye concerns Rachel McAdams as Lisa Risert, head desk clerk at a hotel, who finds herself trapped on a plane next to Mr. Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy, still handsome, but now inexplicably terrible). Rippner gives her a damned-if-you-do choice: either his henchman kills her dad (Brian Cox on ultra-casual day), or she assists in a plot to kill the Homeland Security chief. As their lives hang in the balance, Dad pads around the house in sweatpants, watches TV and makes the occasional attempt at American accent ("Your room hasn't bean touched"), while the HS chief edges ever nearer his hotel room death trap!


Ladies and gentlemen, how can our wide-eyed and dull heroine figure into this terrorist plot? By phoning the hotel from the plane, and having the victim moved to a different hotel room. That's the choice: make a phone call possibly resulting in the death of a near stranger, or have your father tortured and murdered. This takes Lisa hours and hours of deliberation.

In his review of The Hearse (1980), Roger Ebert talks about "The Idiot Plot," which only works if every character involved is a moron. Red Eye only works if screenwriter Carl Ellsworth is a moron. Not only does Red Eye not even offer bullshit-thriller explanations for its plot contrivances, not only does it beg dozens of questions of the average viewer, but it is as if these problems never occurred to anyone involved.

Riddle me this, Messrs. Ellsworth and Craven: What kind of plan is this?!

Nothing in the terrorist conspiracy plan makes sense, from execution to result. The end-product of the crime is to execute the Homeland Security chief by blowing apart his hotel room with a missile. As a political move, this makes no sense - the Homeland Security chief will simply be replaced. As an of terror it's enormously expensive and not-terrifying. The symbolic gesture is nowhere near as security-shaking for Americans as the 9/11 attacks, which only involved investment in a couple of flight lessons and the price of a boxcutter.

The attack consists of blowing apart a hotel room. This involves the complex smuggling of a surely-expensive missile, the off-chance of the target being in his room, and the success of the A Plot's room-switcheroo. Why the assassins cannot simply explode the entire building with domestic ingredient bomb, as real terrorists are wont to do, is not addressed.

But honestly, Red Eye's political assassination is an excuse to justify the story taking place on the airplane. The movie wants to play off our stranger-phobia. The real question isn't "what if the life of the Homeland Security chief were in your hands?" but "what if the cute guy you met at the airport were a killer?" It's hard to reconcile the close-quarters human plane drama with the far-flung political terror nonsense, either in emotional or story logic terms.

Red Eye draws attention to its own shoddy plotting by trying to play up the security paranoia of post-9/11 airport culture. The central gimmick is that Rippner is threatening Lisa in the middle of a packed airplane. Let us accept for a moment that international terrorists find it feasible to hire a domestic hitman to follow a hotel employee for weeks at a time to get personal information about her, so that he can charm her in an airport lounge... rather than just blowing up the target's car or something. It's supposed to be tense that there are a hundred people around, but no one Lisa can turn to for assistance. Instead, it leaves one wondering why this course of action is the most logical for Rippner.

All he needs is a telephone. Given the appalling security of this airline, it should have taken two minutes to grab Lisa in the parking lot, jam a knife in her ribs, and force her to make a phone call. Or indeed kidnap her. Or indeed have some other woman call the hotel, pretending to be Lisa. Does any of this really need to be done on the airplane?

As dopey as all this is, there's something far more wrong with Red Eye. And it's the thing the film seems most proud of, and so far as I can tell by informal conversation, the element most admired by Red Eye defenders: the character of Lisa Risert.

I'm going to seriously "spoil" the end of the picture here, but I think this needs to be addressed. Red Eye desperately wants to be in the genre-subversive female empowerment vein of Alien or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

First of all, the history of female empowerment in mysteries, thrillers, and horror films is richer and far longer than popularly given credit. From Nancy Drew to Susperia to Carrie to Kill Bill, the fantastique is loaded with heroines who survive specifically by the grace of their feminine cunning.

Secondly, I want to propose a more deeply subversive reading of the thriller genre and its nutty cousin, the slasher picture, in which the endless peril, abuse, death and general trouble faced by female characters is caused by destructive elements male sexuality and/or power. This isn't the time or place to get too detailed, but in brief, if you want to be critical of (or simply honest about) this dynamic, you have to show it in action. It may take an articulated feminist mission statement like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles for this to be explicitly understood. But this tension is present in interesting ways - be they sophisticated or naive - in everything from Rear Window to Halloween. I'm not claiming these are feminist works, I'm proposing that their gender schematics have possible unexplored nuances.

Red Eye presents an exceptionally irritating character in Lisa, a woman the screenplay tries very hard to sell as a young woman super-competent and preternaturally adept at her career. Unfortunately, while being a hotel desk clerk is certainly stressful, there is not much thrill to be had in watching someone breeze through rudimentary customer service tasks. Look, the job just isn't that hard. A hilarious early scene has Lisa on the phone with a nervous newbie desk clerk, talking her through a difficult transaction. It plays like a brain-numbing version of the death-bed composing scenes of Amadeus.


Hawkeye Pierce's most frequent surgical lesson is put to new use
in Mr. Craven's Eye Am Curious (Red)

All this is just innocently silly, and on par with the rest of the movie -- the appalling and hollow "flirty" dialogue that falls out of McAdams and Murphy's mouths in the aiport lounge is less Meet Cute than Meet Retarded, and when a character is stabbed in the throat with a pen, he does not shed a drop of blood, and spends the next half hour running and fighting non-stop. But it's also the first brick in Lisa's seriously fumbled character arc.

In a third act backstory revelation, we learn that Lisa's ambition is a symptom of (overcompensating? Coping?) having previously been raped at knifepoint. So the arc will be that she goes from victim to digging deep in her self-reliance flightbag, save the Homeland Security chief, and her Pops, and kill the bad guy. The film has in no way earned Lisa's victimization story, but that's the idea. But no. No, Red Eye gives us a woman who goes from being a rape victim to... being rescued by her dad.

But Red Eye makes very clear what point it's attempting to make about its heroine, and promptly fails to bear out that mission. Which is kind of a singular achievement, in its own way.

2 comments:

Maudy said...

Dear Chris,

May I try to give my humble but not unimportant opinion on your whole entry: I don't agree.

First of all, movies like Red Eye are not made out to be A movies, nor will they ever be A movies. The movie isn't trying to be an A movie, either. It's merely being made to entertain yourself for about 1,5 hours. With that being said, I can move on to my next point.

As you so interestingly point out; why kill the Homeland Security Chief, when he will just be replaced? Indeed. Why kill the president, when he will just be replaced? Or a musician? Or anyone for that matter? Quite an irrelevant question, if you ask me. If you watch the movie you will see this particular chief has particular opinions on a certain matter. Just like one president isn't the same as the next one, one Homeland Security chief will probably not have the same ways of maintaining certain policies as the next one will have.

Furthermore, you made a tiny slip further in your essay on Red Eye. Why charm her instead of blowing up her car? How would he be able to make her switch the chief's room? Quite an important question to ask yourself.

A certain scene in the movie explains why Rippner feels like terrorizing her on the airplane, instead of just doing it somewhere else. He tells her that it's entirely her fault that she's being terrorized on the plane. Why, she should've just stopped her grandmother from dying. For this simple matter hadn't been foreseen by Jackson at all, which you can't really blame him for.

As for your question to why not just terrorize her while she's in, yeah, where actually? When she's on her way to the airport, she's in a cab. When she's checking in she's surrounded by too many people for him to make a subtle move. Yes, he's also surrounded by a lot of people on the airplane, but he's seated right next to her and if he just acts nice towards her while in line for the check-in, people won't get suspicious that easily. He has to not only let her think he's just a nice guy trying to get her attention, he has to not attract negative attention towards himself from people surrounding them as well. It would make her lose her credibility if she decides to speak up. (As he also points out the moment she gets up to get the attention of the flight-attendant).

Even if you aren't convinced just now, I can also point out to you that it wouldn't be much of a story for a movie to get the girl in 5 minutes time. There would be no movie at all. You can also argue, yeah, why didn't he do just that, or she that? But where would the story be if they did? This is the same with every movie and not just with Red Eye.

The whole point behind the character of Lisa, is, that she's an emotionally unstable person. This is also why she's an easy victim.

Of course you can try to find an easier way to kill someone, or to threaten them to get information out of them. The question is, will it be quite as handy? This way it might be more complicated, or expensive for that matter, but Jackson tries to remain innocent.

Before you might think of the way he is reckless when he just runs after her after when she escapes from the plane; of course you have to keep in mind; he is set on this task, and destroying her. Especially when she's threatening the successful outcome of the task at hand.

Well, I never tend to over analyze a movie, though I think I did just that right now. Oh well, there's a first time for everything. Even changing opinions ;)

Anonymous said...

ur just jealous cuz cillian's hott and ur not