Signs is a study of faith and fear wrapped around a minimalist story of suspense, telling of an alien invasion of Earth. While its all-too-neat conclusion is a bit ofa letdown, everything that leads up to it is Hollywood commercial filmmakingof the highest order.
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), his brother and his children live on a farm inBucks County, Pennsylvania. Graham is a former minister who lost his faithin God several months ago when his wife was killed in an accident. Somewhatnumb to the world around him, Graham (and his family) is about to find hisfaith tested once again. One morning, he discovers a series of large cropcircle formations in his cornfields. At first, he thinks the formations arenothing more than a prank being played on he and his family by locals. Whentelevision reports from around the world show that hundreds of similar cropformations, and the occasional alien appearance, are on the increase, signsbegin to point to otherworldly things.
Shyamalan uses many tricks he employed in his past two films, TheSixth Sense and Unbreakable, to full effect here: the forebodingatmosphere, the delicate pacing, the building of suspense to almostunbearable levels, some very well-paced jolts culminating in a big-payoffending. Thanks to Shyamalan’s expert balancing of a minimalistextraterrestrial invasion tale with an emotional, thought-provoking look atone man’s loss, challenge and possible redemption of his faith not only inGod but also the human race, Signs stands apart from his two previousfilms.
Also unlike those two films, Signs is not a sombre shocker. Alarge and welcome amount of humor is injected throughout the film, allowingfor the viewer to connect to the characters and story in a way that waspresent in Sense (minus the laughs) but lacking fromUnbreakable. It’s still nice to see every so often a Hollywoodfilmmaker that respects not only the audience’s imagination, but also theirintelligence.
As with Shymalan’s previous efforts, the film has been perfectly cast.Gibson’s low-key turn as the disheartened father is one of his bestperformances in a long time. Conducted largely through facial expressionsthat carry maximum emotional impact, Gibson allows us to feel Graham’s painand sense of loss while also fully understanding his questioning of beliefand faith. Just as impressive is Joaquin Phoenix as Merrill, Graham’sbrother. He provides most of the movie’s comic relief with a dry,understated and perfectly timed delivery. Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslinare spot on as Graham’s kids, Morgan and Bo. And Cherry Jones turns in a nicesmall role as the local sheriff and even M Night himself has an impressivecameo as the man who was responsible for the death of Graham’s wife.
My one reservation with Signs lies in its final few scenes. Itfeels like Shyamalan was going for the crowd-pleaser ending, a nice and tidywrap up that doesn’t gel with the rest of the film. It’s not a terribleending. It simply is a tiny bit of a letdown in light of what came beforeit.
Finale aside, Signs is the type of film you wish Hollywood wouldlook at and try to copy more often. Like the recent Minority Reportand Road To Perdition, it proves that motion pictures can be bothentertaining and thought provoking without these attributes cancelling each other out. Itshows that you don’t need to show everything or spell everything out to theaudience to grab and keep their attention. It also proves that M NightShyamalan is indeed a truly talented film maker.