Red Eye: Wes Craven’s flight from hell is piloted brilliantly from start to end

<span>Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams in Wes Craven’s thriller Red Eye … ‘with a swift runtime that has its wheels down by the 85-minute mark’.</span><span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Cillian Murphy and Rachel McAdams in Wes Craven’s thriller Red Eye … ‘with a swift runtime that has its wheels down by the 85-minute mark’.Photograph: Reuters

By the time of his death in 2015, Wes Craven’s reputation as one of the finest film-makers of his kind was firmly cemented. The horror maestro had a knack for transforming schlocky material into A-grade popcorn entertainment. Such is the case in Red Eye, the antepenultimate work of his career, and arguably the most underrated film in his oeuvre.

Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is the manager of the Lux Atlantic Hotel, a premium resort on the Miami shoreline with a clientele that includes, as the film begins, the deputy secretary of homeland security. Onboard an overnight flight home, Lisa’s seemingly innocuous seatmate Jackson Rippner (a psychotically blue-eyed Cillian Murphy) reveals himself to be a member of a domestic terrorist ring and embroils her in a conspiracy to assassinate the high-ranking official.

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With a swift runtime that has its wheels down by the 85-minute mark, Craven’s lean and efficient film-making is on full display from the opening frame. The first 20 or so minutes are dedicated to meeting the major players: a brief sequence at Dallas Love Field airport introduces us to the eccentric passengers who will soon be accompanying our protagonist on a flight from hell.

It’s here that Lisa meets Jackson; the two strangers share a friendly drink at the airport before heading to their gate. Craven smartly chooses to keep this tender moment short and, once the cabin doors are sealed and the plane reaches cruising altitude, Jackson’s demeanour switches as he informs Lisa of his plans. If she doesn’t comply with his demands, he tells her, an associate will kill her father back home in Miami.

What ensues are some of the most thrilling setpieces onboard an aircraft committed to film, as Craven stages scene after scene of Lisa trying to outsmart her assailant. While the director’s most memorable moments of action have taken place in a domestic setting – the home in his movies functioning as a space of safety and danger – here he adapts to the narrow confines of the plane, converting walkways and lavatories into potential arenas of violence.

Ever the genre master, Craven knew that the key to elevating otherwise trite material was to imbue it with interesting ideas. His Scream films have become go-to texts when discussing the symbiotic relationship between crime and the media, their meta-commentary allowing audiences to both seriously reflect on and guiltlessly enjoy Ghostface’s murderous escapades.

In Red Eye there’s a blend of two different traumas: national anxiety fuelled by the threat of an airborne disaster just a few years removed from 9/11, and personal fear when it is revealed that Lisa is a survivor of a sexual assault just two years earlier – with a scar on her collarbone serving as a constant reminder of the harrowing experience.

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While much of the early intrigue revolves around Jackson’s convoluted conspiracy, Lisa’s interior dilemma soon usurps any of the film’s political aspirations as Craven steers his movie in a much more cathartic direction. When their plane touches down in Miami, Lisa musters up the courage to overcome her fears and take her trauma back to the suburbs, leading to a thrilling cat-and-mouse chase through her childhood home.

In a GQ profile this year, Murphy recalled his opinion on the film: “Rachel McAdams is excellent in it … but I don’t think it’s a good movie.” Only half of this statement is true. Red Eye does indeed feature one of the always-great McAdams’ finest screen performances but, thanks to its wicked sense of fun, it also becomes something much more interesting than almost every other studio film released in the years since.

Like any of these movies, you’d best buckle up. When Wes Craven is your pilot, chances are it’ll be a bumpy ride.

  • Red Eye is available to stream on Netflix in Australia, and on Paramount+ in the UK and US. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here