#14 — Rachel McAdams as Lisa Reisert in Red Eye (Wes Craven, 2005)
I think one of the marks of a good actor is the determination to treat theoretically trashy material as seriously as anything else that might land on their pile of scripts. Often the clearest test of this comes in horror films, not only because it’s a widely maligned genre but because years upon years of preceding efforts have cued actors how to approach the harrowing situations built into such dramaturgy. More so than most films, horror flicks invite the artificiality of a performance built on the lowered expectations of the audience rather than really digging into the true reactions that would come from the terrifying situations playing out onscreen. Get the scream right, the anguish right, the look of shock right, and that’s all that’s really needed. The audience has been trained to see the simplest, most direct responses of the characters as correct. But applying a dose of reality to these scenarios–trying to deeply understand what someone confronted with the stuff of horror would actually go through–opens up a whole other world of possibilities. Horror films should lend themselves to the most fraught, layered portrayals. Sometimes what an actor gets right isn’t the established girders of the genre, but the opportunity to find something more, something truer.
Rachel McAdams had every reason to lower her expectations for the 2005 thriller Red Eye. Her career was ascendent on the basis of Mean Girls, The Notebook and Wedding Crashers, and she was working with director Wes Craven, whose trajectory looked a little different. After a failed stab at transitioning to serious filmmaking with Music of the Heart (which, to be fair, did include an Oscar-nominated performance for lead actress Meryl Streep, even if that’s probably more attributable to Academy voters writing her name on the ballot through muscle memory than anything Craven did), the director slunk back to horror, first with a dreadful sequel and then, five years later, a widely ignored attempt to redefine werewolf movies. Red Eye was the second Craven film released in 2005, and it looked like more of the same, meaning a tedious exercise in making a thin concept into something that would jolt moviegoers enough to shake the dollars out of their pockets. Instead, Craven stepped away from his default mode of futilely trying to create a new franchise as lucrative as the one he flounced into with Freddy Krueger and found his way to a tight, contained, markedly clever thriller.
The premise, of course, is simple. A political figure is slated to stay in a luxury hotel in Miami, and a terrorist organization wants to make sure he’s in a certain room so they can mount an attack on him. To do so, they have to find someone who can make that switch, corner that person in a physical space where they have no recourse to seek help or escape and threaten harm to someone they care about if the room switch isn’t completed. Their target is the hotel manager, Lisa, played by Rachel McAdams. Conveniently, she’s taking the overnight flight from Dallas to Miami, meaning all they need to do is place a sociopath in the seat next to her explaining that if she doesn’t comply they’ll take out her father, who’s sitting at home watching “the comedy marathon.” Cillian Murphy plays the man who gives his name as Jackson, first flirting with Lisa in the airport bar then sharing an armrest with her on the plane. The film is necessarily locked onto these two characters as they dodge and parry through the flight, and both actors commit to their roles. I do have to admit that a recent fresh viewing made me decide that Murphy is actually a little hammy, playing his part as a familiar dead-eyed villain, all evil snarls and exasperation (at least after the mask of charm falls away when he reveals his true intentions to Lisa). McAdams, though, is thoroughly marvelous.
Even at his best, Craven often wasn’t that inventive of a director, and he largely solves the problem of limited visual options in Red Eye by favoring tight close-ups on his two performers. That suits McAdams perfectly, giving her the platform to show Lisa’s spinning mind playing out on her face. Her thought process is clear as she is constantly trying to figure out how to extricate herself from the situation, or at least to keep the various threatened people down on the ground safe. Better yet, McAdams astutely and subtly shows the moments when Lisa pivots from decision to implementation, usually involving some level of deception–or, to put it more clearly, acting–as she tries to convince her adversary that she’s playing along. When she’s handed the airphone and discovers it’s temporarily out of service because of the storm raging around the plane, McAdams meticulously goes through the steps of Lisa figuring out she might be able to bluff the phone call, deciding to do it, bracing herself to take the action and starting to pretend she’s talking to her hotel employees, telling them to make the demanded switch. One of the wisest choices McAdams makes is to be certain that Lisa’s acting capabilities aren’t at the same level as those of her portrayer. Lisa does decently as she tries to dupe Jackson, but she’s often given away by little tells in a way that’s entirely plausible. Through her layered performance, McAdams brings added credibility to the plot’s machinations.
There’s one more specific thing that McAdams does that I think is critical to the quality of the performance and far too rare in horror films. When her character’s situation is at its most dire, she doesn’t simply lock into “scared” as the emotion. She opts instead for the full gamut of responses that add up to scared: frustration, exhaustion, anger, disbelief, confusion, even determination. McAdams is fully invested in every moment and plays off what’s before her with honest, grounded, complicated reactions. She’s not playing to the genre. Finding something honest in each moment is what matters. A person in this actual situation wouldn’t adhere to any sort of established conventions, so why should Lisa? That’s how McAdams approaches it, which naturally makes the film far more tense than it would be otherwise. Craven and his collaborators famous deconstructed the trappings and tropes of horror films with the Scream outings, but the diminishing returns of each subsequent entry in the franchise indicated that they didn’t really learn from their own lessons. In Red Eye, McAdams shows exactly what those films should have proved: the only way to make something truly scary is to abandon the patterns and discover then expose the underlying honesty in any given situation, no matter how fantastical or contrived.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover as Simon in Grand Canyon