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Winged Migration: Lisa (Rachel McAdams) and Jackson (Cillian Murphy) should have taken the bus in 'Red Eye.'

Strangers on a Plane

Wes Craven's expert high-altitude thriller slowly turns into passable shocker

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

LIKE ANY horror director, Wes Craven clearly wishes not to be labeled as such. In 1999, he tried to break out of his 30-year bond by making a weepy Meryl Streep drama, Music of the Heart. This plastic, transparent ploy led to nothing except another Oscar nomination for Streep, while Craven returned only six months later with Scream 3.

Now Craven has taken a much cleverer path to creative freedom. His new film, Red Eye, begins as a tense, well-written and brilliantly directed psychological thriller pitting two smart people against one another in a confined space. It brings to mind such Hitchcockian adventures as Lifeboat, Rope, Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, as well as Joel Schumacher's underrated Phone Booth.

But just in case his ploy does not work and audiences do not accept his new direction, the movie's final third reverts back to an old-fashioned Craven shocker, in which a crazed killer could jump out from behind any door at any time, as only Craven can do it. Flawlessly beautiful Rachel McAdams (Mean Girls, Wedding Crashers) stars as Lisa Reisert, a together, confident hotel manager who has just attended her grandmother's funeral and must catch a flight from Dallas back to Miami. During the inevitable delays and airport tension, she meets cute with Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy, 28 Days Later). By coincidence, they are also sitting together on the plane.

They have a lovely, warm conversation about this and that and life. Almost on a dime, Jackson suddenly reveals that he's actually a kind of ambiguous evil spy/killer-for-hire/blackmailer and/or kidnapper. His evil plan revolves around Lisa's hotel, a special guest staying there and Lisa's father (the great Brian Cox). Craven handles this transition so beautifully that it happens in an instant, but the shock is so great that it seems to take several minutes.

Craven and screenwriter Carl Ellsworth (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) keep the early action confined to the plane—and mostly to the two seats. And so, Murphy and McAdams almost exclusively carry the load; their careful line readings and exemplary use of their eyes and faces are responsible for the film's success. Craven uses the plane's other personality-rich passengers for both tension and release, but never overuses them to the point that they distract, as in many bloated 1970s disaster flicks.

When the film revs up into its final third, as magnificently controlled as it is, Red Eye misses a beat. The first hour treats us to such pure, sophisticated suspense that it feels like a bit of a cheat to dissolve into such primitive horror. Nevertheless, taken as a whole, Red Eye has much to offer. Just the opening moments alone—and the way in which Craven uses rain, close-ups of photos and wooden crates and a crowded airport to create unbearable anxiety—are worth the price of admission. Moreover, in an age when shaking the camera and hammering away at an audiences' senses is considered normal, Red Eye shines as an example of near masterly filmmaking.

Red Eye (PG-13, 85 min.), directed by Wes Craven, written by Carl Ellsworth, based on a story by Dan Foos and Ellsworth, photographed by Robert Yeoman and starring Rachel McAdams, Cillian Murphy and Brian Cox, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the August 17-23, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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