Red Eye (2005): terror in the skies, payback on the ground

The words 'red eye' balanced on the wing of a jet plane.

Unpacking the plot of Red Eye, and how Wes Craven’s in-flight thriller plugs into the ‘ordinary hero’ story type.

Red Eye is pure popcorn cinema – fast, feisty and with an intriguingly fiendish premise.

Highly-strung hotel manager Lisa Reisert (Rachel McAdams) is on a night flight to Miami when she gets chatting with a fellow passenger. Jackson Rippner (Cillian Murphy) is good looking and great company, but when the plane takes off, his mask comes off too.

Rippner arranges coups and high-profile assassinations, and has his sights set on a politician staying at Lisa’s hotel. If she doesn’t help by moving this guest to a different room, Rippner will have her dad killed.

Dilemma dramas are ten a penny (think Speed or The Firm), but the more impossible the scenario, the greater the lure. After all, how do you escape a no-win game at 30,000 feet?

As it turns out, there’s always a way. But if Red Eye is more “wham, bam and done” than cinema classic, it’s far from disposable. In fact, Carl Ellsworth’s screenplay is one of the neatest and well resolved stories you’re likely to see.

There’s a storytelling principle that says if you introduce a gun in Act 1, you should use it in Act 3. Well, Red Eye makes mincemeat of ‘Chekhov’s Gun’. Along the way, it messes with movie clichés about heroism, and turns a mild mannered woman into a merciless killing machine.

How does it get there? I’m glad you asked.

Why we kill on camera

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most folk don’t think of themselves as murderers. In fact, being incapable of killing another person is something we prize. It’s a weakness that elevates us above beasts and psychopaths – it makes us ‘human’ and humane.

And yet, there are loop holes. Most societies excuse execution for social cohesion or the greater good (or so we tell ourselves). Warfare, for instance, or the death penalty.

On the other hand, killing for kicks – for the sport of it, or for individual benefit – is frowned on. And so, like in horror, disaster and true-crime tales, murder in the movies becomes a way of indulging things we shouldn’t do, and definitely shouldn’t enjoy.

Storytelling also embraces motifs of murder that convey an earned existence. Killing when the chips are down can denote anything from survival of the fittest (our evolutionary heritage) to moral superiority (good triumphs over evil). In these scenarios, killing can even be heroic.

In Red Eye, protagonist Lisa Reisert must pick a path between moral ambiguity and saving lives. The movie asks what it takes to turn someone into a murderer, then turns up the heat until its protagonist caves. Society dictates that murder is wrong. That means everyone has their price.

The dilemma at the heart of Red Eye

Cinema journeys are almost never about travel. It’s not the locations that change, but the people (see also The Fly).

When Lisa leaves Dallas she’s a workaholic people-pleaser. A knife attack two years ago has turned her into a loner. She throws herself into a job that, admittedly, she’s very good at, while she holds life at arm’s length.

By the time she lands in Miami, everything has flipped. Lisa agrees to help assassinate a politician, then stabs her captor (in the throat. With a pen). Finally, she becomes a fast-thinking, fleet-footed stunt woman capable of killing one hitman with a car and fighting off another.

At what point does Lisa become a killer? Technically, it’s when she goes along with Rippner’s demands to have Charles Keefe moved to another room.

At first this sounds more like capitulation than killing: Keefe’s death for her dad’s life. Of course, Rippner’s trade is no choice at all, but simply preferring one murder over another. And yet by picking, Lisa’s no longer an observer of tragedy, but an agent of it (albeit against her will).

Then she learns Keefe’s wife and kids are at the hotel. Now it’s no longer about trading one man’s life for another. Instead, it’s a trade-off between personal desire – dad’s life – and the greater good (a family with kids). This is the tipping point. Or, in Lisa’s case, the flipping point.

Note that Lisa’s attempts to save everyone, including herself, are passive. She scribbles a note in a self-help book, and leaves a bomb warning on the bathroom mirror. Now, however, she becomes an active player in the game. Suddenly, she’s a match for Rippner.

The ordinary hero

It’s not quite true to call Red Eye a female take on the Hollywood hero template. It doesn’t change the script so much as come at it from a different angle (that too with a knowing sense of mischief). And like many gendered reboots, this one still has a male director. So.

Stories about ordinary heroes typically run like this:

  • It’s about an ordinary person (sometimes so ordinary they’re undeserving of their ‘protagonist’ status. Life happens to them and they go along with it)
  • A dilemma breaks them out of their passivity. It’s literally a call to change
  • They dig deep and find hidden reserves. Often, their heroic attributes were inside all along, just waiting to be turned on.

Meek to mighty stories, where the transformation is especially pronounced, include Inner Space and The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The Matrix, too, though there it’s as much about the ‘ordained hero’ as the ordinary hero, i.e., people destined for greatness all along.

Lisa is an ordinary hero. In fact, she’s the classic undeserving protagonist, a literal and metaphorical punching bag for others (the mugger > spoilt customers > Rippner).

Then Rippner offers her a choice between death and life. In story terms, he’s really offering quite a different choice: stay as you are, or step up.

Becoming heroic

Lisa emerges from the dilemma with a supercharged sense of survival. That’s what makes her heroic (that is, literally in the style of a Hollywood action hero).


  • Now she’s an adept pickpocket (the sleeping guy’s pen)
  • She stabs a man in the throat
  • Luck falls into her lap (getting off the plane and out of the airport)
  • She’s a master of disguise and quick thinking (convincing diners she’s an employee – in other words, by briefly becoming herself again – before vanishing into thin air)
  • She doesn’t hesitate to run down a hitman. This is her first real kill, albeit in self defence
  • When Rippner shows up, Lisa matches his punches and even land better blows
  • Her body ‘upgrades’ to meet new demands. She trips, falls and is even thrown down a flight of stairs, but is fine
  • Crucially, she does all this for the benefit of others. Can you truly be a hero if you only save your own life? See also sacrifice in cinema, via Interstellar
  • In case you missed it, the film signs off by having Lisa finally stand up to cantankerous customers, while Cynthia spells out the significance: “You are so my hero”. Well, quite.

Hidden symbol: when Lisa gives away the self-help book she stops reading about self-actualisation and makes it happen for real.

Incidentally, becoming heroic means falling into the kind of happenstance that only exists in cinema. When Lisa steals a car, she simply drives it away – no worries about whether it’s an automatic or manual. Similarly, when a hitman shoots her through the windscreen, she doesn’t even have to duck.

The hero archetype is everywhere in cinema, and is often implausible. Red Eye has a lot of fun with that.

How Red Eye resolves its breadcrumbs

Resolving a trail of breadcrumbs in the shortest possible distance is what drives 90-minute popcorn thrillers and tales of ordinary heroes.

But often, the baked-in flaw is resolving heroic transformation through conveniently placed skills or knowledge. In other words, if a character reveals they’re a [ideally failed] gymnast (Jurassic Park 2), it’s because they’re going to flick-flack the bad guys later.

Red Eye is guilty of this, too, but what makes it fun is how subtle (and frankly random) it is. How do we learn Lisa has the hockey skills – lol – to escape a killer? From the film’s blink-and-miss-it opening image, which simultaneously reveals:

  • Who our protagonist is (the girl in the photo)
  • That she can play hockey (another photo)
  • And that bad things are afoot (the swiped wallet).

This isn’t the only example of Red Eye’s storytelling via minutiae.

  • The trunk hidden in a crate of fish at the start of the story is the real Chekhov’s Gun. When we see it again in act 3 it even transforms into a bazooka – i.e., an enormous gun
  • When Joe calls her in Dallas Lisa puts him on hold then forgets to pick up (i.e., profession before personal life)
  • Lisa’s scar becomes backstory about a knife attack, which unlocks her pen stabbing skills
  • Rippner’s forward thinking includes telling Lisa he’s cutting off her alcohol just as a flight attendant walks by
  • Rippner says his associate will kill Joe with a “12-inch KA-BAR. That’s a knife”. In Miami, it’s the knife he tries to kill Lisa with.

One of the most rewarding comebacks is when Rippner crows about female emotion Vs male logic, only for Lisa to flip it in the finale. How? By becoming ‘a better Rippner’ and beating him at his own game.

Becoming Rippner

I’m not convinced Jackson Rippner is a real name so much as a job-related pseudonym dreamed up to match the initials on Joe’s wallet.

It’s there for the pun of it: the reason why Jackson is never Jack nods at serial killer Jack the Ripper. In fact, the pun draws Lisa’s attention – and ours – to Rippner’s intentions long before the big reveal.

All the outward cues suggest Rippner is the best man on the plane. The others are variously lecherous, rude, listening to obnoxious music, or shovelling spaghetti, i.e., toxic traits. Ironically, when Lisa says there are no gentlemen left, she picks the worst of the lot.

The story asks what it takes to turn an ordinary person into a murderer, but actualises it several times over. First Rippner ropes Lisa into the assassination plot. She later mows down a hitman in a stolen car.

But the story’s real resolution, and Lisa’s way out of the dilemma, is to become one particular killer: Rippner. This is what powers her implausible but life-saving transformation in the final act.

What kind of person can stab a man in the throat with a pen? Someone for whom murder is a job and not a moral quandary: Rippner.

All of Lisa’s hero transformations – becoming fast, cunning and cold-blooded – are righteous echoes of Rippner’s villainy. The film even seals the deal when it has Lisa mimic his words and actions.

This put Rippner’s taunt about male logic and female emotion into Lisa’s mouth in the finale. And it sees her headbutt him, just as he did on the plane. So it turns out Kate Bush was right: this woman’s world, ooh, it’s hard on the man. In this case, that’s exactly as it should be.

Red Eye (2005), directed by Wes Craven

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Picture credit: Ross Parmly