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M. Night Shyamalan's Signs: Faith, Doubt and Little Green Men

Aug 3, 2002
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Fright, faith and unexpectedly funny moments blend into a challenging, rewarding movie

Cons:Shyamalan's films are, I guess, an acquired taste: you either love 'em or hate 'em.

The Bottom Line: It's not what you're expecting....And that's a Good Thing.

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

M. Night Shyamalan is a master at misdirection. We sit down to watch one of his films, expecting one thing—ghosts, comic book superheroes, UFOs—but rise from our seat two hours later realizing we’ve experienced something completely different.

The Sixth Sense is less about a young boy who sees dead people than it is about a man finding his place in this world (or the next). Unbreakable isn’t so much a fable of a man discovering he has superhero powers as it is a young boy discovering new reasons to love his father.

Similarly, Signs would lead you to think it’s just another paranoid “us versus them” War of the Worlds. Instead, it turns out to be a war of the soul.

Stories of religion and faith are tricky subjects for movies to tackle, especially during the summer months when most audiences take their communion with a generous drizzle of popcorn butter. Signs dares to stick its fingers inside our heads and knead our brains a little. Like the writer-director’s other films, this is one which will have viewers still talking about favorite scenes hours after the end credits and James Newton Howard’s eerie-jazzy score have faded away.

As with The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and last summer’s The Others (a Shyamalanesque story directed by Alejandro Amenábar), Signs only gets better the more you think about it. Give credit to Shyamalan’s script which miraculously manages to work fate, faith and coincidence into a B-movie plot about space invaders.

Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a minister who renounced his faith six months earlier when his wife was killed in a freak accident. Trouble is, the people in his small Pennsylvania town can’t stop calling him “Father” and asking him to hear their confessions. Hess’ pain and rage at God are plain to see on his face every time he’s out in public. That’s why he mainly stays holed up in his farmhouse with his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and his brother (Joaquin Phoenix) a has-been minor league baseball player. However, the glum, slump-shouldered reverend can run but he can’t hide from God (or, more accurately, the Devil).

As the movie opens, Hess and his family discover something has flattened parts of his cornfield into a series of circles and symbols. “It couldn’t be done by hand—it’s too perfect,” the stunned farmer says, surveying the damage.

Even the town’s unflappable police officer (Cherry Jones) is flapped: “Look at how the stalks aren’t cut—they’re bent over. What kind of machine could do that? I mean, what in God’s name is going on?” That line, of course, is weighted with double meaning. It’s not long before Hess is asking God what’s going on as he and his family board up their farmhouse against an unseen threat. By the same token, how many of us board up our hearts and guard against giving too much thought to spiritual matters? No, we’re too busy savoring that butter on our popcorn.

Shyamalan knows we’d rather pay money to see a movie about sinister green men sneaking around a cornfield than a film about wrestling with faith. That’s why Signs succeeds on so many levels. It’s a frightening, visceral flick full of jumpy-jolts where we watch the screen from behind our butter-stained fingers; but it’s also one where we walk away in full Ponder Mode. Do miracles exist, or is life just filled with luck? Is it possible there are no coincidences, that random acts are really part of a predestined pattern?

Hess thinks he has the answer: “There is no one watching out for us. We are all on our own.” That’s before his moment of epiphany, a wonderful scene that closes the film with equal doses of fright and tenderness.

As in the best suspense films (See also: Hitchcock, Alfred), Signs keeps most of its horror just out of camera’s range. Shyamalan lets our imagination do most of the work as he teases us with glimpses of incredibly scary stuff: a scaly hand thrust under a door, loud rustling in the cornfield, the sudden absence of crickets’ chirping. It all adds up to an increasing sense of dread which, even when the big moment of conflict finally comes, is mostly seen in the reflection on a TV screen.

Shyamalan depends on the abilities of his cast to convince us of the unimaginable. Notice how many scenes depend on facial expressions to drive the drama forward. We don’t see the off-screen monsters, we just see the reactions of Gibson, Phoenix and the excellent child actors Culkin and Breslin. Doubt, fear and anger all play across the creases in Gibson’s face, telling us a lot about his character without saying a word. As with Bruce Willis in his two previous movies, Shyamalan draws a subdued, reflective performance from Gibson. It’s quite possibly the best acting he’s ever done for the camera.

Signs might not be to everyone’s taste—in typical Shyamalan fashion, it’s deliberately paced and leaves some questions unanswered—but, honestly, how often do you see a movie that begins with broken stalks of corn and ends with the repaired soul of a man?

Recommend this product? Yes

Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 13 and Older

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