Signs


While calling him the new Hitchcock or the next Spielberg is premature, you have to admit that M. Night Shyamalan is not so quietly emerging as one of the most distinctive and resonant voices in popular moviemaking. The Sixth Sense, his first major feature (after the smaller, little seen “Wide Awake” and “Praying With Anger”), established a series of stylistic and thematic fixtures that would find themselves in his next film, the under-appreciated Unbreakable and in his latest, “Signs”: a) all three films revolve around a man in an existential crisis who, accompanied by a young boy, witnesses supernatural happenings, b) they all climax with a surprise ending and c) they are all directed in complex, long shots that communicate more than they actually show.

Less often pointed out is how affecting Shyamalan’s films can be, not only in terms of suspense but emotionally as well. What really makes his work so involving is that his stories are always about the characters first and the extraordinary situations they find themselves into second. Henceforth, the main reason I’m now more than ever feeling that Shyamalan deserves all the unreasonable praise he’s been receiving is not because “Signs” is the scariest movie I’ve seen in half a decade but because of how thought-provoking and moving it is.

Superficially, it is what it’s been advertised as: a sophisticated take on your usual “They’re here! The extra-terrestrials are here!” story. But while it works wonderfully in that genre, showing an utterly intimate point of view of a “War of the Worlds” situation and terrorizing us thoroughly without flashy special effects or grand scale action sequences, this is just the toppings. The movie is truly about one particular family coping with grief, lost faith and resentment… while alien visitors are roaming about!

Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, a reverend who leaves the Church after his wife dies in a car accident. Right there, I couldn’t help but think of Harvey Keitel’s character in From Dusk Till Dawn, who’s set up exactly like this, and for a while I half wished the more rugged, more ambiguous Keitel had been cast instead of Mr. Movie Star Gibson. But by the wrenching last act, Gibson has made the role his own and is perfectly believable through his spiritual turmoil. He’s well supported by Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin (making her debut), who all give solid performances as Graham’s family. Some of the bit parts are one-dimensional small-town folks caricatures, but that works with the 1950s B-movie tone of some of the early scenes, and eventually we focus solely on the Hess family and it gets dead serious.

By then, of course, we must go back to Shyamalan himself. He did write, produce and direct the film, after all! Visually, he crafts his film with precision and style, but without the kind of masturbatory shots he put in his previous movies. Here everything is where and how it is for a reason, like so many pieces of a puzzle that naturally fall into place one after the other, which mirrors the very theme of the film, actually. This nicely ties into the ending of Unbreakable, which has one of the protagonists giving a speech about how everyone is here for a reason and there are no mistakes.

Which takes us to another “trademark” of Shyamalan, the so-called twist endings. Well, anyone who complains about that regarding “Signs” isn’t paying attention. The ending looks like a twist, it sounds like a twist, yet it’s NOT a twist. What is revealed is the overall thread, the theme the film was about all along. You could have guessed it and it wouldn’t be detrimental to the experience. In fact, I’m certain that the film is even richer when you watch it for the second time because you can better grasp the meaning of the pieces.

You probably noticed that I’m not saying much at all about the specifics of the film. That’s because I want you to experience it without having every scare, insight and touching moment undermined by previous knowledge. Just go see the movie, you won’t regret it.

Updated (9/17/02): Decoding the Signs – SOME SPOILERS

I went to see “Signs” again tonight, and I must admit I was a little apprehensive, as I tend to be when I’m about to revisit a film I loved so much. There’s always this fear that the movie is not as good as you remembered. Thankfully, I can tell you that this is not the case at all, in fact I’m even more positive that this is by a good margin the best picture released in the last fourteen months.

“Signs” remains brilliant in concept and execution and absolutely terrifying, more for what is implied than what we see. In any case, the alien invasion is just an excuse, as this is actually the story of Graham, widower, father of two, defrocked reverend. Watching the film again, the skills of both Shyamalan and Mel Gibson are even more impressive. I’ve praised the direction a lot already, but I sort of short-changed Gibson. I’m now convinced that this is the best performance he’s ever delivered. Graham struggles with his faith, not because he doesn’t believe in God anymore, but because he hates Him. Yet while he’s not a Father anymore, he remains a father. Throughout the film, you can always feel how much he cares for his children, how he’ll do anything to protect them even though he’s scared to death himself.

By the third act, my eyes were regularly filling with tears. When Graham breaks down during dinner and the kids come and hug him. When he distracts them from the attack on the house by recounting the moment of their births. When he hangs on to his son, trying to make him breathe normally with all his will. And the final epiphany, when a miracle occurs… That’s why “Signs” is my favorite movie of 2002 (so far). I think that’s what I like best about movies, when they introduce you to characters that you grow to know and love. So many films are most preoccupied with contrived plots when they should just make the characters real and interesting and let them affect the story, not the other way around.

And then there’s the hidden in plain sight theme that there are no coincidences and everything is how it is for a reason. This translates to the screenplay too. For instance, why does Graham call his family doctor about the dogs? Watch for whose mailbox reads “Veterinarian” (hint: he’s played by Shyamalan himself). And then there’s the climax where the seemingly random quirks of the characters all play a role in the outcome. Forget the crop circles, these things are the true signs. ”I once was blind, but now I see.” And that very last shot sums it all up without a word.

A few spare thoughts on the “Signs” DVD (5/21/03)
The film is presented Widescreen (1.85:1) with THX sound in English or French and optional subtitles in both languages. Special features include 10 minutes of deleted scenes (interesting but somewhat redundant– they were wisely cut), animated storyboards for two key sequence, an excerpt from an hilariously cheapie creature feature Shyamalan made as a kid and an hour long documentary about how every aspect of the making of “Signs”, from the script to the production design, the actor direction, the special effects, the score and the marketing. Best of all, of course, is how the film itself is still fun, moving and scary as hell even on the small screen.