At least once per decade since his feature debut, The Last House on the Left, Wes Craven shook up the horror genre. Especially in the slasher realm, thanks to hits A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream. Even the less successful or more experimental features tended to stand out in Craven’s hands. The master of horror delivered so many memorable villains and outrageous moments in horror that his attempts to push past the genre’s boundaries got overlooked. Such is the case with Red Eye, a straightforward thriller released theatrically fifteen years ago, on August 19, 2005.
Written by Carl Ellsworth (Disturbia, 2009’s The Last House on the Left), Red Eye stars Rachel McAdams as hotel resort manager Lisa Reisert. She’s taking a red eye flight home to Miami after attending a funeral and meets fellow traveler Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) while waiting for the plane. Because Mr. Rippner takes his time to reveal his dead giveaway name, and that he’s so very charming, it’s not until she’s on the plane seated next to him that the truth is revealed. She’s to assist in coordinating an assassination. The target is her resort’s most prestigious guest, a politician, and failure means Rippner will have her father (Brian Cox) murdered instead.
At its core, Red Eye is a chamber piece that hinges almost entirely on the leads’ performances. Trapped within the cramped economy class quarters’ confines, Lisa attempts to find ways to outwit the observant Rippner. The lack of space means not a lot of action to fuel the tension. Rippner’s charming façade drops completely, exposing instead a ruthless businessman determined to complete his mission. That entails bending Lisa entirely to his will. He doesn’t quite anticipate just how tenacious and strong-willed she is, and Lisa continuously tests his patience while attempting to thwart him and alert fellow passengers. It’s this back and forth between two highly capable actors that really sells this no-frills thriller.
Craven knew how to maximize tension and pacing with over three decades of experience under his belt at this point, while putting his characters first. That’s ultimately what grounds Red Eye, keeping it from growing too over-the-top in plausibility. Even in moments like Rippner’s surprise tracheotomy, or the overly complicated assassination plot, which is luckily given minimal screen time. Craven’s grasp of suspense and terror, steeped in reality, even keeps Red Eye from feeling too dated in an age where technology evolves at lightning speed. Built-in phones on planes and cell phones have come a long way in just fifteen years, but it doesn’t hinder how this film has aged. That’s mostly because of Craven’s unwavering focus on characters first and foremost. Even the minor characters add flavor and complexity to a simple premise; the little girl traveling on her own seems the only one to catch on that something’s very suspicious about Rippner’s behavior.
It was also Craven who decided to make the assassination target a Homeland Security politician, a change from the script’s description of the character as a powerful businessman. That small change didn’t amount to anything plot-wise but gave depth in motivations behind the conspiracy and subtle, timely commentary in the wake of 9/11. In other words, it was a more meaningful answer to who this character was and why he was being targeted. Craven had no intention of playing up that element too much or having it take away from the fast-paced thriller. He knew exactly what this movie was and didn’t veer off course while making it.
Upon release, Red Eye performed well on its theatrical run and even won over many critics. The sinister bathroom sequence in which Rippner catches Lisa attempt to scrawl a help message on the mirror landed on Bravo’s 2004 special 100 Scariest Movie Moments in 25th place. Yet, it’s not a film that comes up often in conversations about Craven’s filmography. It’s easy to see why; there’s nothing supernatural or horror about this film. Red Eye is a pared-back thriller existing outside the bounds of the director’s typical horror offerings. The film delivers on the thrills, but it’s exemplary of Craven’s strengths and gives a glimpse of what he could’ve done had he gotten to play outside of the genre more often. A simple premise that threatens to plummet into silliness is always pulled back from the brink by two riveting performances and an experienced director who understands what’s most important.