Mile-High Danger in Wes Craven’s ‘Red Eye’

I consider myself to be a fanatic for the works of Wes Craven, who gave us such iconic horror films as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, and The Last House on the Left, among many, many others. As such, I was arrogant enough to assume that I had seen everything that he had either written and directed (well, mostly everything; You couldn’t pay me to care about Music of the Heart).

Well, apparently I missed a spot, because as it turns out, the 2005 Rachel McAdams/Cillian Murphy vehicle Red Eye was one of his as well, and I’d been wrongfully ignoring it all these years. Since it’s currently streaming on HBO Max, I decided that I needed to rectify this egregious error on my part.

And I’m glad I did, because Red Eye is definitely one of the better amongst Craven’s later films.

And yes, before one of you complains: I know that this is technically a thriller, and not a full-fledged horror movie. But A) It’s directed by Wes freaking Craven, so it automatically counts, and B) I challenge you to give me a concrete defining line between the two genres. It’s impossible. Besides, official labels be damned, the plot of this filmed can be effectively summarized as “Scary man tries to kill lady,” which, for my money, is close enough to count.

For a slightly more detailed description of the plot: Red Eye follows hotel manager Lisa, played by the always-delightful Rachel McAdams, as she boards a flight home from Texas to Miami. She had been visiting the Lone Star State to attend the funeral of her grandmother, and is rushing to make it back to work before the arrival of an important guest, who happens to be in a prominent government position. In the airport, she happens to meet a charming stranger in Jack Rippner  (Cillian Murphy, more charming here than he’s ever been in his entire career), who by sheer chance also happens to be on her same flight, sitting next to her.

The film begins as a rom-com, with even the trailers setting the stage initially for the plot to follow through those familiar motions. Overworked business lady meets a charming and laid-back stranger, who teaches her to slow down and smell the roses. You know, Hallmark Christmas movie stuff.

But no, obviously that isn’t where things go. We don’t talk about fun and romance on this site. There’s gotta be a murder in there somewhere for me to care. Luckily, it turns out that  Jack is a mercenary/assassin/nondescript bad guy, hired to kill Lisa’s government guest, and needs her to pull some strings and have him moved to a room with a better vantage point for the assassination. Lisa, being slightly more morally sound than her traveling companion, declines the request, at which point Jack informs her that, if the plot fails, Lisa’s father will be violently murdered by an associate who’s currently parked outside of his home.

And so begins an extremely stressful, clever, and efficient ride through the skies as Lisa attempts to escape, outwit, and otherwise survive her encounter with Cillian Murphy and his haunting, sociopathic eyes.

The film is effectively the cinematic equivalent of a TV bottle episode, taking place almost entirely in a singular location. And it’s a real testament to Craven’s skills as a director that he manages to squeeze more suspense and nail-biting tension from a row of airplane seats than most filmmakers can get from an entire haunted house. The small, restrained, claustrophobic setting adds a real, tangible sense of hopelessness to Lisa’s plight, knowing that there’s absolutely nowhere she can run. Jack has her completely at her mercy for the next several hours, and the smug bastard knows it.

Rachel McAdams sells the drama and the fear magnificently, playing Lisa as equal parts terrified beyond all reason and simultaneously determined to beat Jack at his own game. She’s no damsel in distress, and once the reality of the situation sets in, she does everything in her power to turn the tide in her favor. This is an incredibly clever script, written by Disturbia’s Carl Ellsworth, and that intelligence allows Lisa and Jack to constantly be angling to get one step ahead of the other. She’s a strong character, who feels very much at home in a Craven film, alongside Nightmare’s Nancy Thompson and Scream’s Sidney Prescott.

Jack, to his credit, matches her tenacity with his own stark, brutal pragmatism. He knows that he’s got the upper hand, and has planned for seemingly every eventuality and contingency. He’s done his research, and he knows everything about Lisa, even down to her favorite drink. He’s even able to manipulate and gaslight those around him into dismissing Lisa’s clear signs of distress: Her fearful sobs can be dismissed as grief from the funeral she just attended, and her shaky, nervous behavior is hand-waved as symptoms of her already-established fear of flying. Murphy plays the role to perfection, oozing charm and endearing awkwardness in the first act, which fades into cold, collected malice by the second. And by the time we reach the climax, he’s transformed into a full-blown force of rage and vengeance.

The pacing of Red Eye is brisk and dynamic, never feeling jetlag even as the setting stays static for long stretches of time. That’s due not only to the performances of our leads and the antics that they get up to on the cramped airliner, but also because of the clever editing and writing choices that keep the audience keenly aware of the ticking clock and the lives at stake. We cut back and forth between the flight, the hotel (where the politician and his storybook wife and kids are doing wholesome family things) and Lisa’s father, who remains cluelessly unaware that any of this is going on. It’s Hitchcock’s lesson about the bomb executed in an energetic, modern(ish) fashion that should make any fans of the director’s work happy.

If I had to levy any complaints against the film – which, of course, I’m happy to do – it’s that the third act works to deflate some of the pressure built by the previous two acts by changing the scenery to a more land-locked locale. It’s a fun climax, and allows for a little more mobility, but it loses the claustrophobic, suffocating feeling that made the previous portions of the film so damn effective.

Overall though, Red Eye is a great, engaging film with wonderful leads and a slick, inventive narrative. I’m genuinely mad at myself for waiting so long to see this, not knowing that it was Craven at the wheel and dismissing it as another forgettable early 2000s action film. If anything, this, along with Snakes on a Plane, just proves that airplanes are inherently death traps, and that we spit in God’s face every time we fly.

Check it out if you haven’t seen it!

And Happy Halloween! 

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