Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, M. Night Shyamalan
MPAA Rating: (for some frightening moments)
Running Time: 1:55
Release Date: 8/2/02
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Review by Mark Dujsik
M. Night Shyamalan may have burst onto the scene as a strong, rising talent three years ago when he wrote and directed the wildly popular and highly celebrated ghost story The Sixth Sense and immensely improved his storytelling skills in his follow-up Unbreakable, but with Signs, he has essentially perfected his craft, both as a director and screenwriter. His films depend on a slow and meticulous, almost excruciating, build, and here there are no pacing missteps. The tension slowly rises underneath each and every twist, and we’re never fully sure if danger is imminent or already befalling. The script allows the characters—not the material—to command the ebb and flow of the story. Moments of humor, fright, and drama naturally flow from the screenplay, because even in the most intense and otherworldly events, they feel authentic. The supernatural occurrences merely disguise a study of the most deeply human fears and desires. And when it all comes together in an extended, nerve-racking climax, things unfold in ways we hadn’t even considered—somehow without relying on the gimmick of a surprise ending. This is the work of a mature and completely assured filmmaker.
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former reverend who lives on a remote farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (forty-five miles outside of Philadelphia) with his two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). Some time ago, Graham lost his wife and his faith, both taking their toll on the family. The film opens with Graham finding his two young children in the middle of a cornfield in the early morning hours—their two dogs led them there. There they discover that an area of stalks is bent with perfect precision to form a series of symbols. Graham is convinced that the damage is the work of some local neighborhood troublemakers, but there’s something too perfect about their formation. Soon news reports begin to confirm sightings of these crop circles around the world, and more strange things happen at home. The family dogs begin to act with uncharacteristic ferocity, a figure appears outside the Hess farm and in the field, some of the townsfolk begin to fear the end of the world, and Hess’ family slowly begins to believe that whatever it all means is in their backyard.
Unlike The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, which took their time to establish the focus of their stories, Signs is pretty much straightforward with its content. This is about a visitation from creatures of another world. Is it a hoax, or is it for real? The question is always sitting in the back of our minds. If it’s real, what are they here for? Morgan learns from a book on extraterrestrials that an event of this size would either mean the aliens are simply observing or that they’re hostile. Shyamalan is a master at creating suspense by producing a general sense of uneasiness about everything and by not showing us too much too early (if he ever shows us anything at all). He works the mood and tension of his films unlike almost any director today. There are minimal special effects used in the film; whatever we do see are merely the shadows under a door or against the moonlight or a quick glimpse of something disquieting in a cornfield or on the videotape of a young child’s birthday party.
But the most important question is: Are the aliens vital to story or are they simply a MacGuffin to cull something more resonant? Shyamalan has used this device in his earlier films. All three are essentially about men struggling and ultimately coming to terms with something beyond them. The Sixth Sense is about a man trying to correct his ultimate failure and realizing why it is his ultimate failure, and Unbreakable is about a man understanding that there’s a greater good he can work for and that, with the good, there must come the bad. Here Shyamalan is studying a man’s faith—the way he’s lost it, and the way that perhaps only something this extraordinary can finalize where he stands. It’s an ambitious theme, but Shyamalan dives into it headlong with great effect. Along the way, the screenplay precisely captures the dynamics of the Hess family. Their interactions are wholly believable. This is important to the alien plot because the film wisely keeps the mass hysteria and paranoia at a distance and instead reflects it within this household. It’s also more important on a simple dramatic level, because the script lets us become invested in these people. There’s a heartbreaking dinner table scene in which all the locked up anger and sadness finally comes out, and it pays off the commitment to their characterization on an intensely poignant level.
The more than capable cast helps us to empathize with these characters. Mel Gibson, a star whose acting talents are greatly and unduly underappreciated, plays the tormented Graham with intelligence and sympathy. He’s a man who lets his curiosity get the better of him more than a few times and a family man obviously clinging onto the people closest to him after losing two of the most important pieces of his life. On the other end of the spectrum is Merrill, played by Joaquin Phoenix with an endearing sort of loafing, naive immaturity. He also provides much of the film’s comic relief. Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are very good as the two children, effectively alternating between wide-eyed questioning and charm and total fear. Shyamalan himself plays a small but important role as a mysterious local that the Hess family won’t talk to or about.
Signs differs from The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable in that it doesn’t have a twist at the end. Instead we learn that everything that has happened is merely building up to an ingenious conclusion that ties the ends of two mythical conflicts together. Perhaps this direct approach has allowed Shyamalan to make a movie with complete focus, and that is why it’s his most accomplished work to date. Perhaps it’s because the film strikes a raw nerve, both in terms of our fear of the unknown and of impending doom. What is certain is that Signs signals the transformation of a promising young filmmaker into a brilliant young filmmaker.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.