In an odd way, the surprise box office success of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's earlier film, The Sixth Sense , may have placed him in a position not quite suited to his talents. That prior film's phenomenal success seems to have made Hollywood brand him as a mainstream director in league with a Spielberg. But Shyamalan seems less interested in pandering to the masses and to Hollywood conventions. His films really go counter to what most mainstream films do. They develop a slow, methodical style that takes the time to develop mood and atmosphere. In the case of Signs , most early ads focused on the phenomena of crop circles and implied some eerie supernatural or extraterrestrial explanation. As if the film might be a scarier Close Encounters of the Third Kind. But crop circles turn out to be just a small part of the story and just one of many "signs" that Shyamalan wants to explore.
The film opens with big bold titles that have an old fashioned feel and a score by James Newton Howard that makes one think of Bernard Herrmann's work for Alfred Hitchcock. And in a way, the film is like a revisionist version of The Birds in which the inexplicable assault waged by the winged creatures has been replaced by an inexplicable invasion by hostile aliens. In both cases, ordinary citizens board themselves up in a home in the hopes of waiting out the attack. Both films also set out to quietly erode our sense of security.
But as with every Hitchcock film, there' a MacGuffin in Signs. A MacGuffin refers to an clever act of misdirection in which what you think the story is about is not really what it's about after all. In the case of Signs , the crop circles and the aliens are the MacGuffin and what the film is really about is faith. That's why the aliens remain on the periphery of the story and their reason for coming to earth is left a mystery.
Graham (Mel Gibson) was a minister until 6 months ago when his wife was killed in an accident involving a local vet (played by the director) who fell asleep at the wheel. Her inexplicable death leaves Graham to raise their two small children. It also prompts him to loose his faith and quit the church. Then he discovers the crop circles in his field as well as other strange happenings. The family dog turns vicious, his daughter thinks the water is contaminated and someone or something is hanging out in the corn fields. Graham's brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) wants to know if all these things are signs that the world is about to end. That's when Graham explains there are two types of people in the world, those who see that all things are connected and occur for a reason, and those who think everything is just due to chance and nothing has a purpose. Graham has now joined the ranks of the latter group. He now feels we all live in a godless world. But as the strange events begin to connect up in surprising ways, Graham reconsiders his notion of faith once again.
In an early shot, Shyamalan shows us a pleasant farm scene but as the camera moves the image distorts and we realize that we are looking at the landscape through an uneven piece of glass. This perfectly sets up the idea of things not always being exactly how they seem. Shyamalan reveals a nice visual sense beyond this opening shot. Working with gifted director of photography Tak Fujimoto, the film employs low angle shots and careful framing that make us feel ill at ease from early on. He and sound designer Richard King compliment the images with a similar kind of audio distortion. We're not sure if we hear cries or birds screeching, branches rustling or someone sneaking around the outside of the house. Like Hitchcock, Shyamalan finds ways to create discomfort with the most mundane things. He also finds humor in unexpected places and the levity helps bring the bizarre situation down to earth. The aliens, though brief and barely seen, are handled well. But viewers should not go expecting a sci-fi thriller.
But Shyamalan has problems bringing his film to a close. Some aspects of the ending are far too neat and clean, revealing too much of the artist's calculation. But all in all, Signs proves to be an intriguing meditation on faith. And its serious consideration of the subject matter and its sometimes leisurely pace, Signs goes against to what mainstream audiences may expect.
As he did in The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan again displays skill with young performers. Rory Culkin (and just how many Culkin kids are there?!) and Abigail Breslin deliver finely tuned performances as Graham's young children. They are appealing but without being annoyingly cute or smart alecky. Cherry Jones also stands out as a compassionate and practical sheriff. Gibson, who usually has to do more running, jumping and shooting, gets a change of pace as a husband who can't cope with his wife's death and a father who can no longer find an easy way to offer comfort to his children.
Sign is a richer film than its ads imply and if audiences can try to go in without too many expectations, they may find a satisfying portrait of one man's attempt to regain his faith.