Signs Review

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by Chris McEneany May 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

    Signs Review
    “It's like War of the Worlds.”

    After an electrifying main title theme that has composer James Newton Howard's Stravinsky-esque scratched violins penetrating your skull with insidious mischief, M. Night Shyalaman's third major movie, after The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, slides into a beautifully constructed Twilight Zone scenario of vulnerable, three-dimensional human beings thrust into a situation so bizarre and otherworldly that their lives, their faith and their love for one another will be put to the test. Taking the oblique angle to another popular genre - this time alien invasion, after first unravelling the ghost story and then deconstructing the superhero mythos in the previous two movies - Shyamalan weaves an emotional portrait of a family already broken by tragedy who must find strength from the vestiges of the harmony they once had if they are going to survive.

    “There is no-one watching out for us, Merrill. We are all on our own.”

    Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a reverend who has shunned the Light in the painful wake of his wife's death in a terrible car accident and now looks after their two children, Morgan and Bo, on their farm in rural Pennsylvania with the aid of his brother, Merrill, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Awakening one morning to discover vast and intricate crop circles in their fields, the Hess Family hear of other such phenomena taking place. Dogs and other animals have been acting weird - one of their own German Shepherds even turns on the kids - and Bo thinks that their water tastes “contaminated” even though, according to her brother, she is too young to understand what the term means. After a few false assumptions it transpires that something strange is happening all over the world and whilst Morgan retreats to the pages of wild science fiction speculation and once-famed baseball player Merrill ponders whether or not he should enlist in the Army, Graham discovers that his lack of faith may be the one Achilles Heel that traps his family when the unthinkable occurs and science fiction becomes a terrifying reality. Shyamalan, in the confused and anxious state that followed-on from the events of 9/11, found a fear that he could tap into that hadn't really been explored since Philip Kaufman's seventies take on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers - that of the threat coming calling to your own front door. Alien invasion movies have been going on since the fifties, but before the Twin Towers came crashing down, the genre had become huge and overblown, with Independence Day splashing it across the biggest possible canvas and Mars Attacks! sending it up in deliriously loopy fashion. After the atrocity in New York, however, Americans realised that the danger could not only come from within, but that it could strike at anyone, anywhere. Suddenly, you weren't safe in your own homes and that terrifying prospect opened up a doorway for Shyamalan's imagination to come pouring through, soaked with subtext, metaphor and allegory about how unprepared and vulnerable modern society really is when faced with the possibility of extinction.

    “We aren't saying a prayer. Eat!”

    “I hate you.”

    “That's fine.”

    “You let Mom die.”

    “I am not wasting one more minute of my life on prayer. Not one more minute. Understood?”

    It is not strictly a quiet film, but Signs is definitely a more sedate thriller than many people had been expecting. Slowly cooking up the tension with odd, and eerie events that eventually snowball into an invasion that we only partially witness and, even then, from one particularly skewed perspective, Shyamalan's direction, like those pesky crop patterns that keep on appearing in the Hess Family's fields, perpetually moving in circles around us until, finally, we complete a circuit that has proved to be exciting, frightening and touching, but shot through with a quirky sense of humour that has been largely absent from everything else that he has made. This screwball eccentricity, showcased primarily by Phoenix's blighted hanger-on Merrill, helps makes Signs one of his most “complete” and accomplished pictures. The use of a baby-monitor to capture alien signals and the absurdities of wearing tin-foil hats to stop them from reading human minds are just visual playthings. The film cleverly inverts the genre via media manipulation. The most showy things in the movie are actually boringly static news-footage that glues Merrill to the TV hidden under the stairs so as not to scare the kids. The video-tape of an alien caught on-camera at a kids' party long before the actual showdown occurs is deliberately gigglesome in its apparent sensationalism, Shyamalan slyly suggesting that real horror might well be mistaken for something else entirely and, thus, like initially unassuming suicide bombers, the threat slips through the net because it was never taken seriously in the first place. Merrill may jump back in shock at the image, and the kids at the party be shrieking in fear, but we just see something daft and considerably unthreatening. Is Shyamalan also pointing the finger at how we can be taken in by wry media manipulation, too?

    Graham Hess is a fallen priest. After losing his wife in such horrific, yet quite absurd circumstances, he no longer sees the evidence of God's good work and his faith flat-lines. The repercussions of the terrible accident that took her away ripple through the family, quietly devastating them and leaving them plodding along in a mechanical, dysfunctional way. Graham is broken. He has lost his way and merely functions now like an automaton. Throughout the course of the movie he must confront the things that he has kept bottled-up and learn not just to accept them, but to use them as veritable weapons. Gibson does exceptionally well with the material. Having worked the land before in Mark Rydell's The River, he knows how to inhabit the persona of a hardworking tiller and devoted family man. Mind you, in reality, he has a huge brood and has been known to put the hours in on his own ranch, so this sort of role should be second nature to him, anyway. Then we have the lapsed religion angle. Well, Gibbo, staunch Catholic that he is, has been known to lose his own way and tread far from the flock from time to time, too. In many ways, this role seems to have been written for him. Phoenix is equally superb as his long-suffering, and distracted brother and really seemed to be cementing himself as a strong indie-style performer to watch, what with Buffalo Soldiers coming out around the same time. Merrill has given up his own life to help Graham with the farm and the kids yet these blinkers are stippled with holes and he yearns for his own freedom. With the Army Recruitment Office in town a tantalising diversion, his own suppressed thirst for adventure is embraced by the notion that something huge and large-scale seems to be happening. Although he may appear to be afraid of the impending invasion as it is depicted on the TV, Merrill is secretly elated that something exciting is finally going to affect him. Graham's blinkers are made of thicker, blacker material. He doesn't see because he doesn't want to. Even when it can no longer be denied - the strange lurking figures around the farm, the unearthly chittering sound in the field - he refuses to allow such weirdness to break the protective shell of grief surrounding him. Only a subsequent close encounter - dealt with in typically obscured Shyamalan style - begins to shake off his reverie.

    The poles-apart nature of their relationship can be summed up in the miracle-talking exchange on the living room couch between a doom-mongering Graham and a giddily gawping Merrill. The scene can be viewed in two ways - either trite, over-written and contrived, or that, in some neat but deliberately hokey manner, something extremely vital and deep-seated is being said. Much as Graham asserts that there are two types of people in the world - those who see signs and miracles and those who believe that events and circumstances are all just the simple products of plain old luck - how you view this impromptu sermon, and possibly the entire film at large, depends entirely upon which category you fit into.

    “What kind of a machine bends a stalk of corn without breaking it?”

    “It can't be by hand, it's too perfect.”

    At the flicks when I first saw the film, the audience seemed to be cut roughly down the middle - which is, of course, virtually another trademark of a Shyamalan production. There was much head-scratching at the end and some audible disappointment. After the cinematically fine - though all-too-obvious from the very first scene, if you ask me - climax to The Sixth Sense, audiences now expected something grand, spellbinding and overt - something that felt satisfying on an immediate eye-candy and thematic level. Whilst Unbreakable suffered from a vaguely unfinished kind of denouement, the film still closed a chapter. But Signs appeared to be all build-up and little pay-off. People wanted those big moments - aliens, a battle, a human last stand - and whilst all these elements are definitely there in the movie, the tone is more suggestive of a creepy horror film of barely glimpsed, shadowy malevolence than a straight-ahead bug-hunt. Shyamalan does this all the time - he plays with audience perceptions, tricking you not so much with a twist ending but with a narrative that runs contrary to the accepted norm practically from the very start. But even this development is a ruse to what tends to be a deceptively simple tale about plain old ordinary folks encountering something extraordinary and having to dig deep within their own psyche to come through it, discovering revelations about themselves in the process. Basically, his films are weepie tele-movies with spooks, superpowers, monsters, mermaids and other external oddities thrown in as metaphorical catalysts for his characters to come to terms with, their own problems seemingly too obstinate to overcome without the intervention of something from the other side, something fantastical.

    Some people like to deride the flash-cut imagery of the aliens - well, before the end, that is - but there is something uniquely unsettling about the “man-in-a-costume” appearance of the kids' party gatecrasher and the almost subliminal flash-cuts around Graham's house. Long-hailed as a veritable Mecca of UFO activity, Brazil, and Puerto Rico in particular, has offered up plentiful video footage and photographs of just such alleged, but decidedly quirky visitations, and Shyamalan's aliens fit right into this look and creepy, yet comical style, so I do not have a problem with this element of the movie at all. Wisely, we don't even get to see one properly until the very end, and even then, its true motivations and abilities are not revealed. Its positioning is much more symmetrical to the emotional core of the movie than it is to the generic monstrous finale that we all expect - but no less remarkable for any of Shyamalan's allusions.

    “What's wrong?”

    “I don't hear my children.”

    When I reviewed Spielberg's War Of The Worlds I remarked on how Signs tackled its invasion better than its supposedly larger-scale effects-driven epic follow-on. Now, over that last few years I have become very fond of WOTW - although I still believe that it has some damning fundamental flaws (as does Signs, in fact ... yep, the whole water-planet thing) - but Shyamalan's take on the idea doesn't tease us half as much with stuff that we aren't going to be privileged to see. When we barely glimpse an alien in Signs, it conjures up mystique and terror; when we finally see one in WOTW, it inevitably disappoints. The Hess homestead under siege is way more frightening than Ray Ferrier's during the lightning strikes. When Graham, Merrill and the kids take refuge in the basement, we are deliberately shielded from the “big stuff” taking place elsewhere - I mean the world is under attack at this point - and thrust very acutely into the more intensely intimate environment of a home and a family being violated. Spielberg attempts very much the same thing, but because he wants to show us spectacle too, he drops the ball by not actually showing us enough. His famed basement sequence also pertains to self-belief and the ultimate sacrifice and is certainly more intense, but its message is exactly the same. For Shyamalan this lack of FX-rife chaos is not down to budget or lack of technical savvy - he simply doesn't need it to tell his story.

    “Swing out, Merrill ... swing out.”

    I've already mentioned the great score from James Newton Howard and, as far as I am concerned, his work for Signs produced possibly the best soundtrack of 2002. Bookending the film with those tremendous shrieking-strings, he keeps a tone of gradually escalating desperation and an ominous, doom-laden tone throughout the rest of the score. But, in a simply beautiful switch-around, he also imbues a layer of hope and wonder, brought heartrendingly to the fore during the emotional climax. The combination of the acting and the music - both culminating in something approaching the miraculous - is powerfully affecting and I don't mind admitting that it gets to me every time. Of course, having a couple of really good child stars obviously helps to tug the heart-strings, too. Abigail Breslin, as Bo, is smartly precocious and unsweetened by the usual “cute-little-girl” standards. Her delivery of sarcasm is as convincing as her fear. Rory Culkin, as Morgan, reminds me so much of Oliver Robbins's Robbie in Poltergeist that it comes as a pleasant surprise to see how much better an actor he is. The scene of his father telling him what happened when he was born may sound unbelievably corny, especially given the circumstances that the family have found themselves in, but both Gibson and Culkin pull it off with supreme ease and conviction. The cinematography from Tak Fujimoto is excellently straight-forward and ambiguous at the same time, heightened by editing from Barbara Tulliver that lulls you with long, steady and unhurried scenes and then slams in a sudden shock-cut and stylistic pull-back or tracking shot to smack you around the chops. And, once again, despite a modest budget, Shyamalan paints his movie with glowing production values, giving it the look and feel of a relocated-in-time Hitchcock.

    “It said there are two possible outcomes of an invasion. One, they fight and are defeated, and have to return with reinforcements. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years later.”

    “What's two?”

    “They win.”

    Shyamalan's stories are circular and lyrical. They describe a slow arc of meaning, understanding and revelation. The past, for him, very definitely shapes the future and he peppers his narrative with visual references and gestures - clues, for want of a better word - of what will come, or rather how a certain eventuality will be brought about. He loves the Big Idea but attacks it, guerrilla-style, from beneath the radar, commencing from the intimate and the reserved and carrying on in the same low-profile manner until we reach a climax that is overwrought and deeply resonant, but still inherently introverted. I may not think that he is always successful in his somewhat stubbornly personal approach, but I do admire the gambles that he takes with material that is undeniably saddled with audience pre-conceptions. Signs, for me, is the epitome of his style and works well on many levels. He coaxes fine performances and attains an eerie tone that ties a knot in the theological, the supernatural and cosmic. That he does so in such an intimate, fairytale fashion is a trait that is unique to him alone.

    “Caroline, please don't call me Father.”

    Misleading, irritating and based around some typical Shyamalan skewed fables, Signs is nevertheless a quality genre movie that tackles its big-concept story from a refreshingly left-field viewpoint and opts to explore some quite heavy issues in an intimate, though offbeat fashion. I find its tone appealing and its characters interestingly unusual. The shock scenes are few and far between and used as metaphor rather than thematic reality, but the atmosphere of dread and suspense is often acute and quite brilliantly served up. With Signs, Shyamalan doesn't do what you think he should with the material and, although I confess to not liking the majority of his work bar Unbreakable, it is to the filmmaker's credit that he feels so damned assured with his own personal vision that he can afford to indulge himself with non-conformity to genre conventions. Sadly, he would take this indulgence to simply ludicrous extremes with the dumb joke of The Village and the whimsical absurdity of The Lady In The Water. More and more, Shyamalan has become an egotist with delusions of his own importance, and this striving to be remarkable is proving to be his undoing. Having said that, his new film The Happening is just about to, well, happen - and I can only hope that the signs he has shown with his last two offerings that has been losing the plot of late ebb away, and that he makes an overdue return to his mood-laced, character-rich fantasies for a modern age.

    This UK Blu-ray release of Signs is region-free and was supplied to us by The Hut.

    The Rundown

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