Signs

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The Sign Says "Everybody's welcome. Come in. Kneel Down. And Pray": Shyamalan Gets Spiritual

Aug 2, 2002 (Updated Aug 10, 2002)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Moody, professionally crafted, well acted, some scary moments

Cons:It's not about aliens and what it is about may annoy some people

The Bottom Line: Let's put it simply — Lots of people will like Signs. I did not. For a more further explanation, read on...


Plot Details: This opinion reveals major details about the movie's plot.

[M. Night Shyamalan's films are first and foremost an acquired taste. And they are an acquired taste that some people are quite passionate about. If you're going to trust or not trust my opinion, you should possibly glance at this little breakdown I like to call "M. Night and I."

Firstly, filming of Wide Awake caused me to miss a class while it was filming at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. That's not relevant. But it's true. And I never saw the movie and don't feel bad about that.

Next, a screenwriting professor at Penn was friends with Shyamalan and my class was given copies of the shooting script of The Sixth Sense a year and a half before the film was released. I hated the script. Out of a class of 17, I was the only one.

Thirdly, I actually liked The Sixth Sense more as a movie than I did as a script, which isn't saying much.

And finally, I liked Unbreakable much more than I liked The Sixth Sense. Didn't love it, but I thought it was an improvement.

So there's my rather idiosyncratic relationship with Shyamalan's work. So you know that if you worshiped The Sixth Sense as one of cinema's great moments, we may possibly have different sensibilities.

That's what we call "Fair Warning."]

This week, a major national news magazine, apparently believing this past week to be entirely news-free, put M. Night Shyamalan on the cover with some dross about Shyamalan being the new Spielberg.

Let's be nice to Shyamalan and forget that his first two films, Praying With Anger and Wide Awake even existed. Let's chart Shyamalan's career not from the minute he began working, but from the beginning he became M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, Legend In His Own Mind. That gives him a 1-2-3 punch to start his career of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and his latest, Signs.

Just on a casual level, let's just glance at Spielberg's first features (that means we're ignoring Duel and several fine TV episodes). Spielberg has the 1-2-3 punch, then, of Sugarland Express, Jaws, and Close Encounters of The Third Kind.

I don't mean to slight Shyamalan as a filmmaker now or in terms of his longterm potential as a filmmaker, but can we get real for a second? Shyamalan isn't in the same league as early Spielberg. They're not playing the same sport and any rush to compare them just leaves Shyamalan crawling in the dust. It isn't a fair comparison really for either man. Spielberg deserves to be measured to higher standards and Shyamalan would be best served being compared to lesser icons.

An interesting thing is that the news magazine raises the question of Shyamalan's greatness almost ignoring the fact that his last movie, Unbreakable wasn't really a big hit. It made 30 million in its first weekend (actually a misleading number since it opened on a Holiday weekend) and yet failed to make 100 million, while receiving mixed reviews. Spielberg's A.I. had roughly the same box office profile and every review of Minority Report was quick to mention that Spielberg was coming back from the disappointment of A.I..

I continue to mean no slight to Shyamalan when I say that to my mind, thus far his career has been much sizzle and no steak. I don't question his potential. I don't question that he's many a step above most young writer-directors in Hollywood, but why must magazines make hyped up comparisons that Mr. Shyamalan cannot hope to live up to. None of his first three major films rises to the level of *any* of Spielberg's first three films. Comparisons are premature and shouldn't be bothered with until Shyamalan develops a body of work that expands beyond what he's currently produced. Right now, I wouldn't compare him to Polanski or Hitchcock either. Or to any of the men whose style so clearly influenced him.

***Spoiler Comment: Unlike his first two major films, Signs isn't about major plot surprises. The trailers have done a great job making it look as if all sorts of mystery and speculation are at the heart of this movie and they just aren't. So I'm going to discuss things in this review that you may think of as spoilers, but they really aren't severe. Oh yeah, and Mel Gibson was a ghost all along. Oh wait. Nevermind. So feel free to skim here***

While the links to Spielberg and Close Encounters are flying, Signs comes closer to deserving mention in terms or Robert Wise and two films from Wise's body of work. Signs is less like Close Encounters and more like a cross of The Day The Earth Stood Still and The Haunting. And amidst all this, Shyamalan has larger spiritual game to hunt.

Signs gets to the point very quickly. Shyamalan's greatest skill as a director is the ability to convey tons of information visually in a very short space. Within ten minutes we learn everything about our lead character that Shyamalan has any interest in telling us. We see a picture of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) and family on a nightstand. Graham's wearing a reverend's collar and he has a wife and two children. But he wakes up from a bad dream in bed alone, concerned about the whereabouts of his children. Where's the wife? We'll find out later. Where are the children? Off runs Graham into his cornfield, where he first passes his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) before getting to his moppet daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his mopey son Morgan (Rory Culkin). Morgan is staring off into the cornfield, where the stalks appear to be pushed over. The camera pulls back to reveal Graham and family standing in the middle of a major crop formation, a series of circles. Graham assumes it's the doings of local kids and calls Office Paski (Cherry Jones), apparently the only cop in their neck of Buck's County, PA. Officer Paski keeps calling Graham "Father" until he insists she stop.

These events all occur in a blur, but we need know no more. Graham was a priest, but he is no longer. He had a wife, but she's no longer around. He fears for and loves his children. And even though his corn field appears to be the site of a miracle, or at least some kind of sign, he's a skeptic. Graham's life has undergone a major change, a change that he's still coming to terms with.

But things are about to get even more complicated. Crop circles, just like the one on Graham's farm, are popping up all over the world. While past crop circles have turned out to be hoaxes, commentators on the news are saying that either this is the largest hoax in the history of the world, or else it's something more. And, forgive me for the spoilage, but it wasn't crazy kids with a compass and a board that are making these circles and soon Mel Gibson, Buck's County, and the entire world are going to come face to face with something that'll rewrite all the science books.

Signs is filmmaking in the subjective tense, a movie fundamentally about doubt and faith. For every action and sign in the movie there are characters examining it and saying "Well, it could mean this, or it could just mean that" or "Well,there are two choices, there they are." Signs features a surface pragmatism which is disappointingly betrayed by the film's conclusion (which I wouldn't spoil for all the tea in China). But for the film's first act, we're wondering if the crop circles are real or fake and if they're real, which that would mean. Would that mean aliens? If it's aliens are they nice aliens or evil aliens? If they're evil aliens how will they attack us? If they attack us, how can we defend ourselves? If they're nice, how can we meet them? How can we understand all of the possible signs? If the baby monitor picking up static or communication? Are the dogs becoming feral because of a virus or because of something extraterrestrial?

And let me assure you, all of these questions are answered early on. Shyamalan's film just isn't about supernatural things so much as its about what would cause a person to believe in or doubt the existence of supernatural things. And for the sake of this film, it's just a small hop, skip, and jump from believing in Martians to believing in God.

Since the death of his wife (a bit before the start of the movie, but shown to us in flashbacks) in a senseless accident involving a driver (played by Shyamalan, giving himself a decent role this time, apparently too good for the Hitchcock walk-on) nodding off at the wheel, Graham lost his faith. Rather than believing that the universe is bound together by a higher power greater than chance, he has fallen into an acceptance that life is full of horrible and random accidents. If you've ever seen any of Shyamalan's films, you'll know which side the director takes on this issue. If he's nothing else, Shyamalan is a calculating writer, believing that every piece of information from the first act of a script should return to make perfect sense by the ending. Not a fan of random details or character traits is he. If you learn something about a character in reel one of a movie, you can be sure it'll come back by the end. So do you think Shyamalan would let a character of his go through life believing that the world is one unconnected accident after another and that "luck" as unregulated? Oh no.

[My question, almost as a side note, is has anybody heard Shyamalan interviewed? The man has a very healthy ego. Very very healthy. Does it feel to anybody else that the conclusion of Signs (again, unspoiled) involves the director equating himself with God? Just curious, but that's how I think it plays out. ]

In addition to losing his faith in God, Graham also has only a tenuous grasp on the love of his children who sense that no matter how much he loves them, he's still damaged goods. Signs finally uses all of its talk of aliens and all of its thrills and chills merely as a framework for a piece of ol' fashioned male melodrama. It's an interesting strategy that failed for me, but may make some people happy.

Certainly the scares are here. Like Wise in The Haunting, Shyamalan is ever-aware of the first rule of scary movies, which is that what you don't show is scarier than what you do. There are some special effects in Signs but they're minor and the movie could have been made without them. Instead, Shyamalan finds terror in his craftsmanship and in every technical aspect of the film. Tak Fujimoto's photography, especially in the nighttime and interior shots is dark and murky allowing for the possibility that something could be lurking behind any door or amidst any row of corn. And you know, according to convention that the vast majority of doors will close and open to reveal no aliens or monsters and that most of the corn is totally E.T.-free. But just on the off chance that this particular set-up will lead to a pay-off, the audience is eternally vigilant because, well, you never know. As in his previous films Shyamalan likes finding scares in reflections, like the scene with the butcher's knife that features heavily in the trailers. And the film's biggest scare is actually a direct lift of a shot that he lifted in The Sixth Sense from Polanski's mind-bogglingly messed-up Repulsion. [If you've not seen Repulsion and you want to see where M. Night gets lots of his moves, I can't recommend this movie highly enough.]

James Newton Howard's score is Shyamalan's greatest ally. More-than-a-little inspired by Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock scores, Newton's music hits on every sit-up-in-your-seat moment. On at least a half dozen occasions when I saw Signs, members of the audience were led to shriek merely by an abrupt musical cue. Sure, it's cheating, but if it makes people feel like they've gotten the necessary rise, I'm all for it. The film also benefits from Barbara Tulliver's tight editing. As yet another aside, I find it interesting that most of Tulliver's background is in editing films written and directed by David Mamet. She's used to editing dialogue to a very atypical pattern, but here she gets to edit everything to Shyamalan's atypical pattern. In my review of Road to Perdition I chided Sam Mendes for directing his actors to read everything very very slowly to make everything more portentous Shyamalan goes a different way. His actors read their lines at normal speeds, but the space between lines is maddeningly (or tension building). Everything moves at a deliberate (or glacial) pace. Even when it comes time for everybody to batton down the hatches for the sake of all of their lives, they display the least panicky panic I've ever seen on screen. Doing anything in the most direct way possible just wouldn't be the Shyamalan way.

My major problem with M. Night is a personal distaste for his writing which prioritizes story structure over character depth. Shyamalan's characters are, without fail, one-dimensional characters driven by a single passionate goal. The stories drive those goals to fruition with little by way of subplot. Shyamalan has yet to write a single character whose entire background and motivation couldn't be summed up in a single short sentence. The complexity of the characters' problems obscures how flat they actually are and makes it appear as if there's always much more going on than actually is. Additionally Shyamalan's characters don't exist in an interesting or varied world. Each of his films has essentially been a limited character chamber piece, wasting no time on people and plots that deviate from the film's main drive.

Graham Hess is a devoted father, grieving widow, and lapsed priest. That's all there is to his character. Those are primal motivations so they drive the plot along without any problem. As Shyamalan shows, without fail, movies don't require multivalent action to work. They also don't require real people. In both of Shyamalan's first films, Bruce Willis played the driven one-note hero, both times with sufficient gravitas and obsession to make many people very happy. They're good performances, even if they aren't complex. The same can be said of Gibson's Hess. Gibson, bless his soul, is a good enough actor to find an underlying humor in his character saving Hess from being ponderously serious. He's passionate in all of his devotions, but he's not really a guy you'd ever want to, say, eat dinner with, play cards with, or hang out with in any way. Additionally, Gibson's performance and Shyamalan's script give no indication at all of what might at one point have made Gibson a good reverend. And that bothers me. Hess is sufficient as a cinematic character, but real people are more interesting and complex than this guy. Because he's all mixed up inside viewers will read all sorts of depth into this character that just aren't there. He's the perfect person to be plugged into Shyamalan's scenario. He's the perfect hero in a movie where the writer-director is the real hero.

The other characters aren't much better. For the third straight picture, Shyamalan gives us preternaturally serious and self-aware kids who have more awareness of the world beyond tangible reality than any of the grown-ups around them. Rory Culkin is better than Unbreakable's Spencer Treat Clark, but less effective than The Sixth Sense's Haley Joel Osment. But he has fewer names in the credit than either. The roles are roughly interchangeable. Osment certainly could have played Culkin's part and I'm sure that Culkin would have had no problems seeing dead people. And Abigail Breslin has that mumbling cuteness that's both real and "only in the movies."

Phoenix's Merrill, a former minor league baseball player, is the film's only "new" character for Shyamalan, as his purpose is largely comic relief and to introduce the film's ham-handed baseball symbolism. Shyamalan has no interest in the baseball angle except for its metaphorical value (Merrill holds minor league home run records as well as strike-out records... He always had to swing away) and as such it feels contrived and artificial, which annoyed me. And also, I've gotta question the plausibility of Phoenix and Gibson as brothers. It's a piece of really bad casting that bugged me at several points.

I'm going to have to come back to this review at some point as I remember things things that worked and failed for me. Lots of people will like Signs and they'll glorify it as being a supernatural thriller that's also about something more and they're continue the Spielberg comparisons without going back to Close Encounters to realize that Spielberg's film is also about more than its extraterrestrial trappings. Both films are about fathers and about what they do when their tightly ordered lives are thrown for a loop by something they can't understand. I'd just recommend that people make sure to go back and look at how amazingly complex Richard Dreyfus's character is in Spielberg's movie. He's what Shyamalan just couldn't create. He's a doubt with conflicted family love, but he's also a real person who exists in a real world, however fantastical the events taking place are. Mel Gibson's character in Signs isn't a real person, he's a tool of the movie's message, a message I won't discuss, but which I ultimately found disheartening, rather than inspirational. Close Encounters made me *feel*, something that Shyamalan has yet to make me do.

My review here is actually closer to 2.5 stars out of 5, but I can't bring myself to give the higher rating. I admire Shyamalan and will continue to see his movies, but I hope that next time around he spends less time worrying about his own hype and more time on the movie. It's also time for him to do something totally different. Spielberg, for example, followed Close Encounters with 1941. That may not have been a great idea, but I can see why he'd do it. Paul Thomas Anderson has Punch-Drunk Love, an Adam Sandler film, coming out this winter. Perhaps Shyamalan should make a comedy with Jim Carrey next. You know you'd go.

[A post-script:
Signs has gotten no better in my mind. And one thing keeps bothering me. I heard a friend mention this the other day as a positive aspect of the film and for some reason I'm still friends with the guy: There's this scene where we just pass through one of the rooms in the farm house. I've forgotten how it plays into the story, perhaps boarding up windows or something. And on the wall, we see the shadow of a cross, a place where a cross must have been on the wall only to have been removed. It has the look of the nuclear shadows that you sometimes see from the A-bomb attacks in Japan, where you see the outlines of the victims on the wall, left for eternity. So on Mel's wall has this ghost of a cross on it. And my friend, a very knowledgeable cinema student, thought this was just about the greatest triumph of art direction ever. Well, yeah, it's nice art direction, but it's a total character betrayal. Mel's burnt-out reverend is so short on faith he won't let his kids pray at the dinner table, but he's going to leave the outline of a cross in his bedroom? As a constant reminder of his lost faith? Only if Mel was as into pedantic symbolism as Shyamalan. But the character that Shyamalan wrote wouldn't have done any such thing. He'd have scrubbed the wall til the pain rubbed off, bleached the wall, torn down the wall before he'd have left it like that. So yeah, that's a triumph of art direction. It also sell the movie out. Just wanted to add that.]


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