In last week’s review of The Skeleton Key, I wrote of the demise of the slasher movie, a subject that leads neatly into the new film from director Wes Craven, Red Eye. Once you’ve helped to define a genre (through The Hills Have Eyes, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Shocker, etc.) and then presided over its demise (with the wink-wink, nudge-nudge Scream trilogy), what do you do next? Well, Craven tried a mainstream melodrama with 1999’s Music of the Heart, which garnered his star, Meryl Streep (!), a bevy of nominations but sputtered at the box office and did little to change his rep. And earlier this year he retreated into familiar territory, re-teaming with Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer screenwriter Kevin Williamson for Cursed, a cheesy but amusing werewolf spoof whose release was delayed for over a year by production troubles and re-shoots. With such mixed results, what’s a horror legend to do next? Well, apparently, you become a feminist.
Red Eye is the newest entry in an almost nonexistent genre — the woman-centric action thriller. Its star, the suddenly ubiquitous Rachel McAdams, starts off as a cardboard saint, a limitlessly capable hotel manager for whom the most demanding guest is just another challenge to overcome. But when this self-described “people pleaser” meets up with a man whose pleasure is murder and mayhem — the epicene yet diabolical Cillian Murphy — she proves to be just as skilled at dealing with homicidal criminals as with rich, spoiled suburbanites.
The central portion of the film takes a scenario familiar from Die Hard 2, Air Force One, or Passenger 57 — a hero trapped with an adversary in the confining space of a plane — and capitalizes on our post-September 11 anxieties about flying. It takes the feeling — familiar to all flyers yet still disorienting — of turning over our safety and well-being to strangers and ratchets the tension to the hilt. McAdams is trapped on the plane with a man who patently means her harm, yet she’s powerless to do anything. If she does, Murphy will have her father — played by the also ubiquitous Brian Cox — killed by his compatriot who’s surveilling his home.
Murphy is being hailed as this summer’s go-to movie villain, and not without cause. After capturing audiences’ attention as the gently humanist hero of 28 Days Later, Murphy has inexplicably become typecast as the new-style pretty-boy rogue, the evil equivalent of the softer, more introspective heroes of our Tobey Maguires and Jake Gyllenhaals. It works surprisingly well for his role here, a sexy sadist who initially seems to be seducing McAdams — the early scenes very nearly play like romantic comedy — only so that he can better screw with her head later.
For her part, McAdams keeps up with Murphy every step of the way. Initially terrified and hysterical when he begins issuing threats, she soon realizes how her customer-service skills can be used to appease even sociopaths and begins to turn the tables. What follows is a terrific game of cat-and-mouse that keeps the excitement up even when we know the inevitable outcome.
The remarkable thing about Red Eye — what sets it apart from the typical action film it could so easily have been — is how pointedly, explicitly feminist is its point of view. Even McAdams’ ditzy subordinate, played to perfection by Jayma Mays, turns out to have an exceptionally cool head in a crisis. When the woman-hating Murphy gets his comeuppance, even real-life woman haters in the audience cheer.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()