What with terrorism anxieties, security snarls, flight cancellations, lost luggage, lost legroom, reduced meal service, and deadly Cinnabon calorie counts, air travel has never been more stressful. Yet even the thousands of fliers recently stranded for days in London’s Heathrow, for real, had a less agita-inducing time of it than Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams), the young businesswoman strapped in next to her own worst nightmare at 30,000 feet in the quick-and-dirty suspense corker Red Eye. The biggest problem the Heathrow hordes faced is that they’d never make their connections. But for Lisa, a hotel executive used to handling the problems of querulous guests, the life of her daddy back home depends on how well she can handle Jackson (never ”Jack”) Rippner (Cillian Murphy), the attractive, alarmingly named young man seated next to her on the last flight out from Dallas to Miami. At the terminal bar, he was the attentive charmer who bought her a drink and locked his big, pool-blue orbs on her velvety peepers. But in the air, he’s a cold-eyed operative with a madman’s calm who demands her complicity — or her old man gets killed — in a plot to assassinate the U.S. deputy secretary of Homeland Security.
It is no small coincidence that Wes Craven, the man from A Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream, directs this effective button pusher of a fright film, from a nifty script by TV writer Carl Ellsworth: A good measure of the movie’s white-knuckle fun comes from Craven’s old-hand familiarity with the way thrillers tick, predicated on the smallest and most banal of missed connections, the kind that get an audience to go crazy. Red Eye begins with everyday, jittery, modern-life frenzy — Lisa trying to get to the flight on time, Lisa dealing with a hotel problem by phone, Lisa navigating the airport din — and then shifts for much of the ride to a setting of almost palpable aircraft-cabin claustrophobia, by which time Ellsworth and Craven have laid out an efficient grid of stalls and feints. Nice touch, the Homeland Security thing; the filmmakers also brake to include a chatty passenger with a love of books by Dr. Phil, a tetchy flight attendant, reality check-ins with Dad — seen puttering at home with Hitchcockian obliviousness (Pops is played by Brian Cox, so you know he won’t stay passive forever) — and, of course, tension based on that most useful of new anxiety props for a wireless generation, a dying cell-phone battery.
For all the bursts of action, though (and Red Eye builds by the handbook, happily setting up the audience for participatory screams), the movie’s most exciting passages take place in stillness and close-up, with the low-budget simplicity of two faces reacting to one another by the glow of the overhead reading light in a darkened cabin. Both McAdams (Wedding Crashers) and Murphy (Batman Begins) are on rapid career rises — she for her rosy loveliness and he for the spooky aftertaste of his delicate beauty. But neither has risen too far, too fast yet to outpace the pleasure induced by their talents at playing real enough characters desperately engaged with one another. Locked in a surreal confluence of the menacing and the mundane, Lisa and Jackson scare us to hell so that earth feels safer.