Airplanes are probably one of the most claustrophobic environments imaginable, at least in reality. You’re restricted to your designated seat, sometimes for upwards of several hours on end, breathing recycled air, and more often than not sitting next to a total stranger who may or may not decide to strike up a conversation out of the blue — all while flying tens of thousands of feet up.
No wonder so many films have seen fit to set their terrifying, thrilling, or otherwise action-packed stories against the backdrop of an airplane, from 2000’s Final Destination (which would later kick off an entire franchise designed to prey on our most deep-seated phobias of dying while flying, or riding on a rollercoaster, or laying in a tanning bed, or...) to 2005’s Flightplan to 2006’s most quotable Snakes on a Plane. One of the most memorable episodes of The Twilight Zone, about the titular “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” stars a young William Shatner as a nervous flyer who becomes convinced he sees a gremlin on the plane’s wing.
Among all these additions to the airplane thriller subgenre, Wes Craven’s Red Eye, which celebrates its 13th anniversary this week, may not look like much at first glance. There are no supernatural forces tormenting passengers, no escaped snakes in the cargo hold, no incarnation of Death working to bring down the plane and its ill-fated manifest. The only terror comes from the person sitting beside you, and what happens when a seemingly casual conversation becomes threateningly personal. Rachel McAdams stars as Lisa Reisert, a hotel manager on her way home to Miami who gets caught up in an assassination plot against one of her high-profile guests — and finds herself trapped on a flight with the sinister Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy), whose job it is to ensure that all goes according to plan.
As a story, Red Eye is fairly straightforward, with a dialogue-heavy script by screenwriter Carl Ellsworth that relies significantly on the strengths of its two leads in order to communicate the conflict that arises once Lisa figures out what’s really going on — and who she’s really trapped next to. Acting-wise, it’s hard to think of any better duo who could pull this off convincingly once you’ve watched McAdams and Murphy on screen. McAdams initially conveys the polished, tempered politeness of an individual with years of experience in customer service, but also masterfully projects wide-eyed, tearful fear once the stakes are personal for her character. Meanwhile, Murphy’s talent is evident from his first scene. As Jackson, he pairs cold ultimatums with faux affability that cracks just a little at the seams, especially if you’re looking too closely at his facial expressions. Murphy’s striking blue eyes have always been a signature part of his appearance as an actor, but in Red Eye, they take on a spine-chilling quality that adds another level to his performance.
Given that Red Eye is a film that rests primarily on the shoulders of these two actors, most of its success can definitely be attributed to their chemistry on-screen. It’s not romantic by any means, but something far more visceral. There’s obviously an unspoken connection between Lisa and Jackson early on; she doesn’t sense enough is wrong right off the bat to not take him up on his offer for pre-flight Tex-Mex, and her alarm bells don’t ring when she finds him next to her assigned seat on the plane. Of course, Jackson’s ability to read her is in large part due to the fact that he’s been monitoring her whereabouts for the last eight weeks. But that knowledge aside, there are moments later on in the plot when his viciousness dissolves and he indicates what could be considered as concern for her — especially once the script alludes to Lisa having been attacked at knifepoint sometime in her past, prior to his surveillance. In spite of Jackson’s attempts at menacing, male energy and verbal jabs about Lisa’s “female-driven, emotion-based” decision-making, Murphy imbues the character with enough humanity to avoid becoming a villainous stereotype. Overall, the film still seems to want to remind us, whether through implicit or overt means, that these are two people whose dynamic will be forever changed after spending time together in close quarters, confessing personal secrets.
Yet even as Lisa’s vulnerability would paint her as an easy target for Jackson and his terrorist group to implement their deadly plan, Red Eye cleverly reminds the audience at nearly every turn that she’s not going to go down without a fight — not just on behalf of herself but for those she knows who are in danger, including her father (Brian Cox). Throughout the film, Lisa is constantly looking for ways to gain the upper hand, whether by scribbling a note in a passenger’s book or using soap to write a note on a plane bathroom mirror for a flight attendant to hopefully stumble on or picking up a wayward pen to wield as a weapon once the plane lands. Only one of those methods actually works in the end, but it’s her persistence and refusal to accept her circumstances that makes her not only an admirable character but a strong thriller heroine. By the time Jackson tracks her down from the airport to her father’s house, Lisa’s got the advantage, both in knowing the layout of the home she grew up in as well as the location of her old field hockey stick inside her childhood bedroom, which she employs in a literal fight for her life. Once Lisa and Jackson are on more even ground, the film illustrates how equally-matched they really are — not just in wills but in tenacity.
All this isn’t to say that Red Eye is perfect; there are weaker components throughout the story, mostly having to do with the movie’s cast of characters beyond the supporting members. Standouts include Jayma Mays as frazzled hotel employee Cynthia as well as Brittany Oaks, who plays Rebecca, a young girl and first-time flyer who manages to be much more perceptive than most of the adults around her. Aside from them, however, Red Eye’s minor characters (most appearing as passengers aboard the flight, and most of whom go unnamed) come off as fairly one-dimensional and unmemorable, usually tasked with providing unnecessary comedy to break the tension-filled bubble that exists around McAdams and Murphy for the bulk of the film. It’s a relatively minor hurdle for the viewer to clear in the scope of the movie overall, though, and one that doesn’t necessarily detract from the excellent work the leads are doing.
These days, some films can’t hold up to scrutiny even five years after their initial release, let alone over a decade. When Red Eye first premiered in 2005, it was positively reviewed by legendary film critic Roger Ebert, who commended it for its competency and convincing performances. Re-reading Ebert’s review now, it speaks to Red Eye’s longevity potential that all of the qualities he singled out as praiseworthy haven’t been tainted by time or transgression. While the late Craven is well-known for his contributions to other, bigger horror franchises, Red Eye is arguably one of his best thrillers: a gripping, unrelenting film with riveting performances that deserves to be recognized for many more years to come.