Whatever else might be said of M. Night Shyamalan’s movies, few will deny the guy knows how to weave a spellbinding story. And if there is one single element of moviemaking that can rope in and please a broad audience more than any other, it’s an intriguing tale, told clearly, grabbing the imagination and holding it in thrall for a couple of hours. The box office takes of Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense (currently ranked 12th biggest all time world wide grossing film) and, to a lesser extent, Unbreakable (148th — but even that is a gross of a quarter of a billion dollars) testify to the success of a yarn well told. Shyamalan’s new entry, Signs, will undoubtedly make it high on the list as well.
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a minister who lost his faith when his wife was grotesquely killed in an automobile accident. Now a farmer, he lives with his younger brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), and his two kids, Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin), in rural Pennsylvania. Shyamalan wastes no time in getting down to business. He opens with whistling sounds, dogs barking, wind chimes tinkling, and James Newton Howard’s effective musical score building to the discovery of crop circles in the Hess cornfields. Crop circles are a known and observed phenomena: large geometric patterns which have appeared at various times and places (here by doubling the corn stalk over, flattening a section of the field), but never explained.
With classic technique, Shyamalan builds suspense through further mysterious occurrences: the family dog attacking Bo, nighttime intruders, spacey sounds on a kid’s walkie-talkie. Finally, on TV, an explanation comes, adding to the quotient of fear and anticipation. That’s as far as the plot will be disclosed here, for fear of spoiling the show for readers.
Additional plusses in Shyamalan’s script are a canny sense of when to have some comic relief, and then to find some wry humor with which to do it. He’s good with kids, too; Abigail Breslin is a heart-stealer and radiates star quality at the ripe age of six. Phoenix is competent here, but the role doesn’t doesn’t give him the chance to rise to the level he has achieved in such films as Quills, The Gladiator, and The Yards. But the always superb Cherry Jones (Cradle Will Rock, Cora Unashamed) invests her supporting role as a local cop with warmth, down-home wisdom, and a knowing sense of irony.
Gibson plays Hess in a style at once low-keyed and acutely intense. There’s not a lot ofvariation or subtlety to his characterization; it is event-driven more than internally driven, which is especially problematic when the theme is faith. He conveys the appropriate sense of a man in deep mourning, conflicted over his loss of faith, and one who is fiercely protective of his family, but when the crucial events unfold and resolve, his personal resolution doesn’t seem earned. This may be, in part, due to the difficulties Shyamalan introduces on the spiritual side of his story, which tends to get muddled. In a key speech Hess responds to his brother’s request for comfort. Hess says that there are two kinds of people. Those who believe that life is about more than luck, that miracles can happen, that signs are an indication of "someone up there," are people with hope. The others are people who believe in pure luck and that, deep down, they are on their own; their destiny is to fear where the others hope.
Those who can buy into this hypothesis will accept Signs more fully than those who might find it a somewhat facile simplification. Even the latter however, should have no trouble finding fun in Shyamalan’s tall tale.