Wes Craven's "Red Eye" uses nothing more novel or innovative than the stock vocabulary of thrillers: jolts that make you leap out of your seat or yell out loud (I did both at one point or another), or deliberately paced sequences where stalker and prey do a canny cat-and-mouse dance. You'll recognize every one of Craven's heirloom tropes -- and so what? They're the very source of the rippling pleasures the movie has to offer. With "Red Eye" Craven plays us like an orchestra of violins, and most of the fun comes from our own recognition that we're responding exactly as he wants us to. We fall for his tricks, and then laugh at ourselves for doing so -- punk'd! "Red Eye" doesn't just stick to the basics -- it reminds us why they still matter.
Rachel McAdams is Lisa, a disarmingly together young woman with an important manager's job at a big Miami hotel. She's taking a night flight back home from Dallas, where she's just attended her grandmother's funeral. The flight is delayed, and partly owing to the communal spirit that sometimes settles over disgruntled air travelers, she slips into a conversation with a striking-looking young man (Cillian Murphy), who, as we figure out long before she does, is trying his darnedest to seem completely normal. His name is Jackson, and Lisa asks him if he goes by "Jack" for short. Not since he was a kid, he tells her, because his last name is -- wait for it -- Rippner. When she breezily remarks that it was a pretty cruel joke for his parents to play on him, he responds agreeably, "That's what I told them before I killed them." And then he laughs, showing a row of white teeth that look as if each one had been sent to prep school individually, and Lisa laughs, too.
Jackson is -- wait for it -- not as he seems. But you already guessed that, didn't you? Without being hiply self-referential, "Red Eye" makes you feel as if you're both a step behind and a step ahead of it every moment. Craven uses simple details to make us squirmy, things like the claustrophobic airlessness of airplane cabins, and the fact that, for the duration of your flight, you're forced to share uncomfortably close quarters with people who might want to, oh, kill you. (Craven and his fine cinematographer, Robert Yeoman, give us a realistically cramped-looking cabin -- not one of these luxury-liner deals where three people can walk comfortably down the aisle carrying on a casual conversation. The filmmakers suggest confinement by means as simple as keeping McAdams and Murphy in medium shot so it looks as if they're filling all the available space.)
The movie occasionally takes us out of that airliner and into the living room of Lisa's dad (Brian Cox, playing a nice guy for once) and, best of all, into the hotel where Lisa works. She's left everything in the quivery hands of her nervous young assistant, Cynthia (Jayma Mays, in a wonderful movie debut). Cynthia isn't used to having to manage the hotel on her own, and she's terrified of making a mistake. By the end of the movie, she's stepped through hoops of fire with jittery aplomb. She's a minor character who makes a big impact.
In a movie like this, where so much of the action takes place in such close quarters, the actors' faces take on heightened importance. McAdams is an alert, fully alive actress, and she's completely keyed in to the tone of the picture. Lisa has her weak moments and her spunky ones, and McAdams plays everything along the spectrum with great relish. Murphy -- most recently seen as the Scarecrow in "Batman Begins," one of that movie's only genuinely unnerving elements -- is her perfect match. For one thing, his lips are almost as pillowy as hers are. And with his menacing china-blue eyes and pale, 2 o'clock stubble, he manages to look both innocently newborn and barroom dissolute. These are faces that can sustain multiple tight closeups, and they hold us tight, too.
Craven has built a long career, from the 1972 "Last House on the Left" through "Nightmare on Elm Street" and the three "Scream" pictures. If you wanted to take the cynical view, you could say that "Red Eye" is just another example of Craven's pulling all the right strings just so he can clean up at the bank. But I think "Red Eye," in all its dazzling obviousness, is much subtler than that. It's an example of a filmmaker's treating his audience like a living organism with a collective pulse -- and isn't that exactly what we are? When Craven says "Jump!" we all do it at once, and giggle at how easily we've fallen under the spell. The key is that Craven is laughing with us, not at us.