The publicity campaign for "Signs" has remained wonderfully vague. We
see crop circles on the farm of an American family. We learn that
something very scary is happening. And that's about it. In that spirit,
I'll do my best to reveal as little as possible here, but be forewarned
that some thematic beans will be spilled.
Those of you hoping that writer/director/actor M. Night Shyamalan has
crafted a worthy successor to "The Sixth Sense" should know right up
front that he hasn't. "Signs" is more reminiscent of his second film,
"Unbreakable," with well-defined characters, a slow, meticulous,
suspenseful build-up and a pay-off that will leave most viewers crying,
"That's it?!?!" Most of the film is quite entertaining, mixing scares
with welcome bits of humor. But the ending fizzles.
There are two storylines: one involving an isolated family facing a
threat from outside, and the other about a man's loss of faith. In both
cases, the presentation is gripping and the resolution unsatisfying.
Set in rural Pennsylvania, the tale centers on Graham Hess (Mel Gibson),
a minister who lost his faith and hung up his collar following the
tragic death of his wife (Patricia Kalember). Graham now sticks close to
the family farm, raising his children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo
(Abigail Breslin) with the help of his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin
Shyamalan opens the film stylishly, with a shot of the backyard seen
through a window in the house. At first glance, the image seems clear,
but it is actually distorted by warps in the clear pane of glass. For
the still grieving family, their already warped life becomes even more
distorted with the discovery of crop circles pressed in the cornfield.
"Are you in my dream, too?" asks Abigail, a gorgeous little girl known
for leaving barely touched glasses of water all over the house after
deciding the liquid is "contaminated." Gazing at the stalks flattened
into geometric shapes, the asthmatic young Morgan says, "I think God did
Graham meets up with a local police officer/old family friend (Cherry
Jones) and theorizes that the circles are the work of a trio of local
troublemakers, but the circles look too perfect, and how did the
cornstalks get bent without any being broken? Tension mounts that night
when an intruder is heard scurrying outside the house. The next day,
Abigail announces that something is wrong with the TV, because "the same
thing is on all the channels." Seconds later, the family stands
transfixed in front of the tube, watching a "Breaking News" report about
an epidemic of crop circles all around the world.
As the story builds, Shyamalan keeps the focus squarely on the family.
This is going to be a small film, by God, no matter what he has to do to
keep it that way. And that's where things go awry. My logic-meter
started buzzing during the first TV scene and went off at each
subsequent one. Shyamalan, a stickler for detail, gets TV all wrong,
presenting news reports that might have passed muster 50 years ago, but
Consider. Abigail is watching TV when suddenly "the same thing is on all
the channels." And what is that "same thing"? A report on the crop
circles, with an image of one in India. So we are expected to believe
that every single TV station - network, independent and cable - chose
the same moment to cut to a single source for a report NOT of an
emergency, but of a growing curiosity. That is simply not how modern
This may sound like nit picking, but it speaks to a crucial problem with
Shyamalan's storytelling methods. In "The Sixth Sense," the world
proceeded normally while we saw the point of view of the two key
characters. That was fine and fair. But in "Signs," the Hess family
members (and we) are fed only tiny fragments of outside information. In
reality, as the situation became more extreme, NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and
several other news networks would be in fierce competition to cover the
situation, with an unrelenting stream of professional and amateur
footage, analysis and interviews. In "Signs," the world adapts to fit
the needs of the Hess family saga.
Shyamalan is determined to keep his story small. He has a clear place he
wants it to go and he cuts off anything that might interfere with him
reaching that end. As a result, our sense of being manipulated grows
almost as fast as the suspense, and the payoff, when it finally arrives,
feels both contrived and insufficient.
The other plotline, the one following Graham's loss of faith, is also
handled in a troubling fashion. I will not reveal any specifics about
the resolution of the film, but as the closing credits rolled, I found
myself thinking back many years, to when our minister told us that the
essence of faith involves implicit trust without proof. If there was
solid earthly proof of God, he told us, it would negate the spiritual
investment of the faithful.
Consider this as you leave the theater.
Even though the resolutions of both stories fail, Shyamalan still gives
viewers a hell of a ride. "Signs" ratchets the suspense ever higher,
with a number of dandy, if sometimes illogical, scares. And the dashes
of humor offer relief without lessening the tension. I particularly
enjoyed the moment when Graham, facing a grim future, decides that
comfort food for everyone in the family is in order. "I'm going to make
a bacon cheeseburger," he announces while wearing a fatalistic grin,
"With extra bacon!"
As evidenced by "Ransom" and "The Patriot," few are better than Mel
Gibson at playing ferociously protective fathers (not surprising for a
man with seven kids) and he does fine work here. Joaquin Phoenix is
effective as younger brother Merrill, although the lack of even the
faintest resemblance between him and his "brother" is almost funny. The
children are perfectly cast, which should come as no surprise to anyone
who saw "The Sixth Sense." Abigail Breslin is disarming as Bo, although
sounds less like something a child would really say and more like
something whipped up for a movie trailer. And Rory Culkin, yet another
of Macaulay's siblings (surely there must be a lab somewhere that does
nothing but clone more Culkin kids), gives a strong performance as the
physically frail but emotionally sturdy Morgan.
In supporting roles, M. Night Shyamalan proves credible as Ray, a
repentant neighbor, and Ted Sutton uses his few seconds on screen to
leave a lasting impression as the intense, staccato-voiced Sgt.
Wearing his director's hat, Shyamalan takes a vintage "Twilight Zone"
approach, with lots of skewed camerawork, while James Newton Howard
provides a dissonant soundtrack that punches at the right times.
Despite the manipulation and contrivances, despite the lame resolutions
of the dual storylines, I still enjoyed the bulk of "Signs." I guess it
is possible to draw pleasure from suspense even without a satisfying
release. M. Night Shyamalan has a real gift for making deliberately
paced, thoroughly engrossing movies. If only he can become more
consistent in how to wrap them up.
Copyright © 2002 Edward Johnson-Ott