The last great film by director Wes Craven was “Red Eye,” his oddly Hitchcockian two-hander from 2005, set mostly on an airplane.
Rachel McAdams stars as Lisa, a workaholic whose flight is cancelled and must stall at the airport and await a red eye alternative. She meets a handsome stranger, played by Cillian Murphy, who identifies himself as “Jack Rippner.” Lisa and Jack immediately hit it off, exchanging playful patter as they kill time in the airport diner. To Lisa’s surprise, Jack is seated next to her on the flight and the two continue their flirtation as their plane takes to the air. Once they’re at cruising altitude, things take a dark turn.
If there’s a chance you’re reading this without having seen the film’s spoiler-heavy trailers, I won’t ruin any of the surprises for you. There are plot threads the film addresses, like Lisa’s trial-by-fire co-worker (Jayma Mays) who has a horrendous time filling in for her, and Lisa’s father (Brian Cox), at home and watching TV. The pieces all connect eventually, leading to a political subplot. Yet, the film is at its best in the air, due in large part to the sensational performances by McAdams and Murphy.
Released a year after her breakthroughs in “Mean Girls” and “The Notebook” and a month after her love interest turn in “Wedding Crashers,” McAdams’ turn in “Red Eye” is one of her best. Lisa is thinly but carefully sketched, as the screenplay references a trauma she’s survived that haunts her, making her current obstacle a means of forever exorcising her demons. Murphy is essentially playing dual roles and he does so with finesse and intensity. Despite the supporting cast, this feels like a two-person drama and it works, because the two leads are so charismatic and up to the challenges the film presents.
Craven cheekily establishes a tone that seems like an “Airport” sequel, as the fellow passengers are broad caricatures. Despite too much time spent showcasing nightmare traveler behavior, Craven ups the ante once the film takes flight. Scenes between McAdams and Murphy during their extensive one-on-one scenes feel claustrophobic, with the plane itself feeling like a sinister prison.
“Red Eye” was a needed surprise hit for Craven, who had recently struggled to shape and release “Cursed” earlier in the year, only to watch it flop. The timing of the release was ideal, with both “Wedding Crashers” and Murphy’s “Batman Begins” still in theaters when “Red Eye” opened late in the summer of ’05. Yet, as a low budget exercise in suspense, this is truly a showcase for Craven, whose focused direction compliments a witty screenplay, a trim pace and the strong work of the leads.
Lisa is as complex, strong and resilient a heroine as other Craven female protagonists. In the tradition of Nancy (“A Nightmare on Elm St.”) and Sidney (“Scream”), Lisa’s boogeyman embodies her most intimate fears. Seeing her change from cowering victim to a take-charge fighter is one of the most satisfying aspects to the story. Like some of Craven’s strongest works, the journey of a woman finding the inner strength to survive her tormentor, marks a story of female empowerment rare in most horror films.
The final moment is cheesy, with a sitcom-worthy one-liner capping the tale and cueing the end credits. Yet, it’s also one of the few endings to a Craven film that can be deemed “happy.” Considering how some of his prior films have concluded with a mother being pulled through a door, a robot ripping out of a dead girl’s face and a monster bursting out from a floor board, the glib ending of “Red Eye” is well earned.