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 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. As with his previous movies, Shyamalan builds suspense with great skill. But, this time around, 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, but 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 Phoenix).
Shyamalan opens the film stylishly, with a shot of the backyard distorted by a pane of glass that at first appears clear, but is in fact warped. Already distorted by the death of their matriarch, life for the family becomes more warped with the discovery of crop circles pressed in the cornfield. "Are you in my dream, too?" asks Abigail, a gorgeous little girl who leaves barely touched glasses of water all over the house after deciding the liquid is "contaminated."
Gazing at the phenomenon, the asthmatic young Morgan says, "I think God did it."
Graham meets up with a local police officer/old family friend (Cherry Jones), theorizing that the circles are the work of a trio of local troublemakers, but the circles seem too perfect, and how did the stalks get bent without 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." Within seconds, 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 not now.
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 all the TV stations - 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 reporting works.
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.
But 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 anything about how the film resolves itself, but as the closing credits rolled, I found myself thinking of many years ago, 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 something grim, decides that comfort food for everyone in the family is in order. "I"m going to make a bacon cheeseburger," he announces with a wicked, fatalistic grin, "with extra bacon!"
In several other films, Mel Gibson has displayed great skill playing a ferociously protective father (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. As has become the norm in Shyamalan films, the children are perfectly cast. Abigail Breslin is disarming as Bo, although her monotone "there"s-a-monster-outside-my-room-can-I-have-a-drink-of-water" line 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 performances, 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 staccato Sgt. Cunningham.
As director, Shyamalan takes a vintage Twilight Zone approach, with lots of low-angle 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.