Red Light

By Joe Marcantonio | Drama
A man tries to convince a prostitute to run away with him. But all is not as it seems.

Kelly works for Leon as a sex worker, where she receives customers in a room illuminated by the characteristic red light of their neighborhood. Leon occasionally treats Kelly nicely, buying her presents for her birthday, and he promises that their work arrangement is temporary, as they're saving up money for a brighter, better future.

But when her regular client Ben arrives for his usual appointment that week -- he pays, but he never has sex with her -- he has a proposition. He's moving, and he wants Kelly to run away with him. He promises her stability and safety, and an escape from an increasingly sordid life with Leon.

Written and directed by Joe Marcantonio, this compelling slow burn of a drama is an almost forensic examination of a young woman caught in an increasingly tenuous situation, but perhaps in denial of just how precarious it is. It begins with an intimate scene, with a young woman in bed with a man. He has given her a present for her birthday, and they seem to be a couple. When he alludes to work and turns on a red light, it becomes clear that their relationship has other dimensions beyond the romantic.

The film is essentially a series of conversations between two people in one room, leaning on excellent writing and performances to pull out the carefully concealed layers of jagged subtext. The storytelling has a deliberate, spare quality that emphasizes the detachment and claustrophobia in Kelly's sphere, and the saturated colors and moody lighting also contribute to a sense of not quite being part of everyday reality. Rhythms in the editing and interactions are slightly off, imbuing the film with a sense of unease.

Actor Jessie Buckley's performance as Kelly is the heart of the film. Many viewers will recognize Buckley from her increasingly high profile turns in projects like Chernobyl, Fargo and I'm Thinking of Ending Things. Here, she uses her natural warmth and magnetism as a performer to make Kelly almost innately sympathetic. But she also reveals the layers of both longing and denial that she confronts when she hears Ben's offer. Hope and temptation flicker in her eyes, as well as reactions of discomfort as she goes about her work. But as she talks, she also voices a loyalty to Leon that viewers sense is misplaced. But what's heartbreaking is that Kelly, too, has doubts, and she sounds as if she's trying to convince herself of what she's saying.

Actor Martin McCann plays opposite Kelly as Ben, with a gentle, unobtrusive kindness that seems like a small island of decency in this callow milieu. He has a keen, softly watchful air over his friend, and he listens to her with intent focus. His conversation with Kelly is honest, respectful and caring, and in many ways, viewers will root for Kelly to run off with him.

But just as the first scene established, nothing is as it seems in the world constructed in "Red Light." It's not just a plot twist, but a final piece of an increasingly complex psychological puzzle, masterfully assembled with subtle, excellent artistry. Revealing the full picture, it also serves as the final nail in the coffin -- one that Kelly has been building for herself, as she's unable to confront the evolving truth of her life. She doesn't know just how mired she is in deceit -- both self-deception and the lies of the life around her -- making the ending all the more tragic and haunting.

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