Horror director Wes Craven has had his share of hits and misses. His strongest work encompasses the iconic (A Nightmare on Elm Street) and the ironic (Scream). His weakest outings give the genre a bad name (Deadly Friend). Red Eye, his latest effort, shows that while he may not drive your fingernails into the armrest like he used to, he still knows how to grab your attention.
The film begins with Lisa (Rachel McAdams), a driven professional, on her way to board the eponymous flight from Dallas to Miami. When the flight is delayed, she meets Jackson (Cillian Murphy), who, after some clumsy flirting, gains her trust. By apparent coincidence, they end up seated together when the flight finally takes off. Unfortunately, Jackson turns out to be part of a conspiracy to kill a Homeland Security bigwig and Lisa is a key to their plans. Jackson tells her that if she doesn't help, a man is waiting outside her father's house, ready to kill him.
A similar dilemma torments the hero of 1995's Nick of Time. There a man is faced with killing a politician in a mall to save his daughter's life. Here a simple phone call is all that is required of our heroine, and she has but a small fuselage to plot her escape. Craven makes good use of these restrictive elements, playing on our sense of entrapment as Lisa employs inventive measures to prevent the inevitable, checked at every turn by the equally clever Jackson.
Craven's history with strong female protagonists continues here with McAdams's riveting performance, which convinces us equally of Lisa's desperation and resourcefulness. Screenwriter Carl Ellsworth wisely gives Lisa enough of a backstory to make her resilience credible. Cillian Murphy is similarly compelling as Jackson, infusing the character with both the charisma to charm our heroine and the cool contempt to threaten her when the time comes.
Once the action leaves the plane, however, it also abandons plausibility, which was already in short supply. Worse yet, we get less of what makes Red Eye unique and more of what makes it like every other thriller, not to mention a few of Craven's own. If heroines throwing household items at killers advancing upon them up the stairs seems familiar, it's because you've seen it in every Scream film. It's perhaps inevitable that a Wes Craven film would devolve into a slasher flick (and not a terrible one), but for all intents and purposes, this one does. While the third act doesn't derail the film, it certainly doesn't do it any favors.
On the other hand, Craven and Ellsworth do a good job of building tension in the first act. If not for the urgent music telling you this is a thriller, you might think you'd stumbled into a romantic comedy about two star-crossed lovers who meet on a late night flight. When Jackson finally reveals his true colors, it's a moment that would pull the rug out from under you, if it weren't for the fact that every trailer (and, yes, review -- sorry) telegraphs his duplicity.
Ultimately, Red Eye does a competent job of executing its premise. While it doesn't fully mine the modern fear of post-9/11 air travel any more than it does the more primal fear of the man you like turning out to be a monster, it at least uses them as a jumping off point for a tightly wound thriller.
The maid is so fired.