Special Note: This review contains potential spoilers. While I would never dream of giving the ending away, certain plot developments will be discussed that would be best left unread until after viewing it.
In his note-perfect artistic vision, M. Night Shyamalan has been superficially compared Steven Spielberg and Alfred Hitchcock. While it is true he evokes those masters in his stunning ability to enrapture audiences in finely modulated, excitingly original stories and deeply humanistic characters, Shyamalan ably stands as an individualistic, first-rate director in his own right. 1999's "The Sixth Sense" captured much-deserved acclaim for its taut storytelling and expertly woven twists, and 2000's "Unbreakable," while not quite as successful, still had enough going for it to be memorable. When viewers go to see "An M. Night Shyamalan Film," they should fully expect to be taken for an unhurried, but thoroughly involving, rollercoaster ride that packs just as much of an emotional wallop as a visceral one.
"Signs" is easily Shyamalan's most assured work to date, cementing his place as one of the great new filmmakers working today. Under the helm of a Roland Emmerich (1996's "Independence Day") or a Michael Bay (1998's "Armageddon"), the film would offer nothing more than a cast of stereotypes and cliches doing battle with a cut-and-paste enemy. Shyamalan, time and time again, has extraordinarily more up his sleeve. In "Signs," he takes the very frightening possibility that we are not alone in the world as a mere jumping-off point to tell a more highly personal story about characters harshly struggling with their faith and beliefs. In doing so, he has constructed a bone-chilling horror film in the classic sense, where the old adage that less is more most satisfyingly applies, and a devastating drama about a family who has quickly begun to deteriorate after being met with tragedy.
Set in the farming community of Bucks County, Pennsylvania (45 miles outside of Philadelphia), former pastor Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) awakens one morning to the disturbing sight of crop circles in his cornfield. Although police officer Caroline Paski (Cherry Jones) assures Graham, younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) that these intricate designs are a hoax, they have reason to believe otherwise when crop circles suddenly start appearing at a rapid-fire rate across the globe. Almost immediately, the family hears running on their roof and rustling within the corn, their dogs start acting strangely, and they pick up what sounds like another language on an old baby monitor they have. For Graham, a man who has lost all faith in God and religion after the horrible death of his wife six months earlier, he expects nothing but the worst to come to them.
"Signs" is as skillfully made as horror films come. It's also about as genuinely scary. Director M. Night Shyamalan meticulously has planned out and crafted his motion picture so that nary a single shot seems extraneous or wasted. As Steven Spielberg did with 1975's "Jaws," Shyamalan teases the audience throughout with the physical appearance of the aliens, choosing to show a single claw or a darkened silhouette over a full-on glimpse of the intruders. In doing this for the majority of the running time, he cunningly builds up a feeling of incomprehensible dread so suffocating that it occasionally becomes almost unbearable.
When Merrill witnesses on the news the first footage recorded of one of the aliens (taken at a child's birthday party in India), his gasping response of horror carries over into the viewer. After that unshakably disturbing moment, you may suspect that Shyamalan has hit his ultimate crescendo, but you would be terribly mistaken. Credit Industrial Light and Magic for their impeccably realistic and subtle visual effects work in bringing these creatures to life.
Where the majority of Hollywood films in this sci-fi vein would be happy to leave it at that--no more than a brilliantly executed scare picture--Shyamalan has grander sights in view. Indeed, when it comes to frightening an audience one minute and making them cry the next, there is no better director working. The stark poignancy of these characters and their situation is not melodramatic, nor does it violently plug at your heartstrings in an obvious manner. As he did with the fragile relationship between son (Haley Joel Osment) and mother (Toni Collette) in "The Sixth Sense," Shyamalan has made another keenly observant and touching portrait of a dysfunction family here that feels real, rather than scripted. Tellingly, a highly charged dinner scene that comes just before the film's climax is so raw that it becomes difficult to take.
Mel Gibson (2002's "We Were Soldiers") is at the top of his game as the grievously conflicted Graham Hess. Nuanced and understated, Gibson turns in Oscar caliber work as a man slowly imploding from the inside out. He carries on an easy, believable rapport with Joaquin Phoenix (1999's "8mm"), who equally impresses. Unlike so many movie siblings, Gibson and Phoenix emanate the feeling of being actual brothers, rather than actors who happen to be playing close relatives. Carrying out his tradition of winningly directing child actors, Shyamalan coaxes exquisitely fine performances from 12-year-old Rory Culkin (2000's "You Can Count on Me") and 5-year-old newcomer Abigail Breslin.
While there is a revelation at the end of "Signs," it is not the kind of obvious twist that made "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable" so noteworthy. Nonetheless, it brings together many of the earlier plot points (Bo's belief that all their water is contaminated; Merrill's failed minor league baseball career; Morgan's asthma) in an ingenious way that strengthens the characters' plights and the story's whole reason for being. A cracklingly suspenseful music score by James Newton Howard (2002's "Big Trouble"), and shadowy, threatening cinematography by Tak Fujimoto (1999's "The Sixth Sense") only add to the looming atmosphere. "Signs" is a masterpiece of human emotions and unrelenting terror.
Copyright © 2002 Dustin Putman