Nov 112004

Signs (2002)

A family living on a farm finds mysterious crop circles in their fields which suggests something more frightening to come.

Directed by
M. Night Shyamalan

Drama, Mystery, Sci-Fi, Thriller

Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, M. Night Shyamalan, Patricia Kalember, Ted Sutton, Merritt Wever, Lanny Flaherty, Marion McCorry, Michael Showalter, Kevin Pires, Clifford David, Rhonda Overby

Despite the inescapable background noise, the movie is really about the emotional and spiritual journey of a rural widower named Graham Hess (Mel Gibson). Formerly a reverend, he gave up his church after the death of his wife.

When we meet him, his days are spent tending a large farm with his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). It’s a simple life that’s turned upside down when strange crop circles show up in his field. At first, Graham is convinced it’s a prank, but then they begin to appear around the world, and the possibility of alien life – perhaps even an invasion – looks realistic.

As the film runs its paces, it riffs on a number of themes more important than the crop circles themselves, but Shyamalan is smart enough to know he has to hang his hat on something. With that in mind, he hides his real issues within a first-class, neoclassical thriller. That means the scares come not from splashy, grotesque special effects but tight editing and suspenseful storytelling.

From the opening frames, Shyamalan creates an atmosphere so eerie and tense that one literally feels tired by the time the film ends. But it’s a good tired, the type that comes after working on something worthwhile and being aptly rewarded for the effort.

It’s safe to say nobody else could have directed this movie. The unique perspective is purely that of Shyamalan, who wrote, produced and directed.

At one turn the film feels campy, at the next desperately serious, but Shyamalan has somehow melded the diversities into a whole that plays like real life. Since that’s what most people look for at the movies, the payoff is big.

Shyamalan also demonstrates an expert ability to build tension, break it with comic relief, then rebuild it. It helps that he has veterans like Gibson and Phoenix delivering the lines, but one gets the feeling this movie would have been great even without the megastars. I’m glad they signed on, though, because their names assure a big-time audience, and this is the type of film that deserves one.

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