“Red Lights” slams into you and an hour vanishes, stolen by a thriller that snaps nerve after nerve in pursuit of pure, distilled fear.

What begins as a fight between a husband and a wife quickly spirals deep into the realm of primal nightmare. Antoine (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), a balding insurance agent, and Helene (Carole Bouquet) are on their way from Paris to Bordeaux to pick their two kids up from camp. Already out of sorts at the beginning of the trip, Antoine stops for some scotch and returns drunk. After he picks a fight with Helene — about his right as a man to drink and drive recklessly — she gets fed up. When he stops at another bar, she ditches him. Driving around in the dark looking for her is futile, so Antoine finally settles into another bar, where he buys a quiet stranger (Vincent Deniard) a drink. Not heeding the bartender’s warning to stay away from the man, Antoine agrees to give him a lift. It will become the most frightening journey of his life.

Perfectly imitating the relentless upwards pull of a roller coaster before the inevitable drop, French director CZdric Kahn takes his time, and unease punctuates the film’s carefully controlled opening scenes. Filmed claustrophobically inside the car, the tension escalates as the speed of Antoine’s driving increases. Instead of downplaying the fact that the screenplay was adapted from an American novel, Kahn wisely chooses to leave the undercurrents of U.S. culture in the film, which infuse the whole thing with a bizarre familiarity. That most American of concepts, the small-town, highway-side bar figures prominently in the action. The bizarre figures inside these smoky caves rave and stumble. Outside, the eerie glow of a solitary neon light shines on surreal monsters, like an upside-down cow attached to a porch roof.

The film examines the male psyche to a degree that most psychologists wouldn’t dare. Front and center is Antoine, who cannot stand to be emasculated by his sexy and confident lawyer-wife. Kahn casts Antoine’s early displays of machismo as awkward and buffoonish, even going so far as to have him pant like a dog. By making Antoine neither likable nor sympathetic, Kahn seems to write him off, and as a result we let our guard down.

In every American suspense film, there is an unspoken agreement between director and audience that the plot will take an earth-shattering twist. When the climactic U-turn fails to reach this level of surprise, it is up to the viewer to amplify the emotional effect of the twist. Not so here. “Red Lights” generates confusion and suspense so immediate that consciousness shuts down in the all-consuming desire to find out what is going on. In fact, the scenario conjured by Kahn is so disturbing on a deeply personal level that the mind tries desperately to lower the shock. Kahn’s brilliance is that he attacks through the screen and at the same time from within, using our own fears as weapons and delaying relief with an incredible series of nail-chomping pauses.

“Red Lights” is terrifying in a way movies aren’t supposed to be, turning trust gained during its quiet first half into effective manipulation. The film draws on universal fears and perversions to strengthen its hold. By drawing on disturbing images that resonate with the power of the collective unconscious, combined with a complex understanding of what grips an audience, Kahn shows us something new about ourselves.