When a movie places its two lead characters aboard a plane, it's normal to expect that a hijacking, a bombing or a natural disaster will ensue. But "Red Eye," a fine psychological thriller with plenty of action, is cleverer than that. Writer Carl Ellsworth has come up with a sly plot and smart characterizations -- a perfect blueprint for an old pro like Wes Craven. "Red Eye" is the work of a filmmaker in command of the full resources of the camera in telling a story visually and with economy.
After some initial hassles and delays, Rachel McAdams' Lisa Reisert, manager of a Miami Beach luxury hotel, boards a plane in Dallas for Miami. A pleasant young man (Cillian Murphy), who displays a sense of humor about his name, Jack Rippner, has been solicitous during the long wait to board. But after the plane is in the air, Jack icily informs Lisa that if she does not place a strategic phone call, her father will be murdered.
"Red Eye" is a good example of how crucial casting is. McAdams is a classically beautiful brunet who's also in "Wedding Crashers," while Murphy, also villainous in "Batman Begins," is a little too boyish-looking and not quite handsome enough to be a good visual match with McAdams. Subliminally the audience gets a chance to sense a mismatch that acts as a foreshadowing.
Craven and Ellsworth are imaginative in maintaining tension while Lisa is essentially trapped in her seat, torn between trying to save her father's life and stopping a diabolical plot. Strengths and vulnerabilities within her surface as Jack reveals himself to be an utterly ruthless and determined killer, and there are myriad distractions, such as turbulent weather and interactions with an array of other well-sketched passengers.
In its first part, "Red Eye," which makes excellent use of comic relief at every turn while building tension, explodes into action and a frightening final sequence. This may seem simple enough in description, but it has a terrifying intricacy that draws upon Craven's long experience as a horror-meister.
Sharp casting extends way beyond its impressive leads, even to giving DreamWorks head of marketing Terry Press an amusing cameo as a supremely obnoxious hotel guest. The film spotlights Jayma Mays, who has large, expressive eyes and a comedic flair that makes her appealing as Lisa's dithery but resolute assistant. Brian Cox, as Lisa's father, and Jack Scalia, as a government official, have been well chosen to provide strong presences in relatively brief screen time and with even less dialogue. The plot is not absolutely airtight, but Craven's filmmaking is too fast-moving and too involving for this to matter. As a movie, "Red Eye" is in every way as well crafted and sharply designed as the Boeing 767 Lisa fatefully boards.
MPAA rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of violence and language
Times guidelines: Too intense for children
A DreamWorks Pictures release. Director Wes Craven. Producers Chris Bender, Marianne Maddalena. Screenplay by Carl Ellsworth; from a story by Ellsworth and Dan Foos. Cinematographer Robert Yeoman. Editors Patrick Lussier, Stuart Levy. Music Marco Beltrami. Costumes Mary Claire Hannan. Production designer Bruce Alan Miller. Art director Andrew Max Cahn. Set decorator Maggie Martin. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes.