Signs by M. Night Shyamalan
One is almost tempted to feel sorry for M. Night Shyamalan. After making two relatively unknown movies (Praying with Anger and Wide Awake), his third directorial effort becomes one of the biggest, most talked about movies in recent memory. And the fact that it grossed several hundred million dollars certainly didn’t hurt. But as a result, it’s a safe bet that all of Shyamalan’s future projects will always be billed as “The latest from the director of The Sixth Sense.
Thankfully, that hasn’t meant Shyamalan’s been sitting on his laurels. He’s one of the few big directors in Hollywood these days making rich, meaningful movies. Movies that eschew big budgets and bigger F/X budgets in favor of real stories, stories that take the fantastic (ghosts, superpowers, and with Signs, aliens) and use them to deal with those questions that art has always tried to answer. Questions about our existence and our purpose in life. And with Signs, Shyamalan tackles the issue of our faith.
I won’t bother going in too deep with the story because chances are, most people reading this have already seen it or know the basic premise. A farmer awakes to find a mysterious crop circle in his field. Soon, signs of alien activity begin to pop up all over the world. The farmer and his family take a stand in their house. Insert appropriately rousing music, an underlying jingoistic theme about patriotism, and gobs of special effects, and you’ve got your next summer blockbuster.
Oh wait… scratch that last one. This is not a big summer blockbuster, and I think there were probably plenty of disappointed moviegoers as a result. This is not Independence Day. This isn’t about a bunch of rogue scientists, smart-alecky flyboys, and ragtag hooligans overcoming their differences and saving the world with a top secret weapon and wisecracks aplenty.
This is about one family — one very hurt, crippled family — trying to cope with an apocalyptic situation. By narrowing the scope of his picture, Shyamalan takes a big risk, but the result is story that resonates and challenges. There are no big space battles or thrill-a-minute excursions into CGI. Rather, Shyamalan piles on the tension, delivering only glimpses of the threat but implying the heck out of it.
What we see are the characters reactions and shocks when even the most mundane of items (a baby monitor) becomes a harbinger of doom (when intercepting alien transmissions). What’s more, we never really see the fullscale invasion. Rather, the family only learns about it in bits and pieces on TV and the radio, creating true sense of isolation and helplessness when things start falling apart.
But perhaps more importantly, we see how their faith reacts to the situations around them. The head of the family, Graham Hess (Gibson, in a restrained and tortured role), was a former minister until his wife was killed in a car accident. Hess now carries a deep hatred for God, convinced that no one is out there looking out for him and his family. He refuses to be called “Father” anymore, and resists peoples’ efforts to get him involved in their spiritual lives (making for one funny confession scene).
However, this grudge has done much of its damage within the family. In one powerful scene, the family sits down to a huge meal in the face of the invasion. It might be their last meal together. Everyone’s waiting for Hess to pray but he refuses to do so. Hess’ refusal to pray ruins the entire meal. But his emotional breakdown at that moment belies his need, and his family’s, for hope in something greater than themselves.
Hess’ stubborn rejection of God, and even his outpouring of hatred when his son’s life is threatened, speaks volumes that something, or Someone, really is missing. It’s a wonderful moment, and Shyamalan sprinkles several like it throughout the movie. And he also sprinkles in some moments of true, shiver-inducing terror. At some points, it gets nearly unbearable — when the family’s dogs go crazy, Hess’ late night trip through the cornfields, or even better, when the family’s house is finally breached. The scenarios are simple, but Shyamalan makes them creepy as all get-out, always hinting right up until the moment when you find yourself three feet above your chair.
But even in the midst of that terror, grace still exists. Shyamalan shows great skill in turning household items into instruments of fear. But he shows equal skill at turning infirmities and coincidences into avenues for miracles, be it an asthma attack or a misplaced glass of water. As one writer said, “coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous,” and Shyamalan seems to take that to heart. And then there are the moments of humor. Not witty remarks or snappy comebacks from a scrappy sidekick, but moments of genuine humor made all the more touching by the fear surrounding them.
As much as Shyamalan deserves the praise, a fair amount of it has to go to the cast. The film rarely leaves the family, so they need to be people that are easy to care for and be concerned about. Gibson powerfully conveys the torture of a man whose hatred for God is the truest sign of his need, and whose need for God may be the one thing that gets his family through this. Joaquin Phoenix plays Merrill, Graham’s younger brother, and in light of Graham’s personal crises, the real glue that holds the family together. But as in The Sixth Sense, this film belongs to the children. Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin are both incredible, making for some of the movie’s tensest scenes, as well as some of its funniest and most heartwarming.
With Unbreakable and Signs, Shyamalan seems less and less interested with trying to follow the blockbuster success of The Sixth Sense. Both pictures, and especially Signs, feel like far more personal pictures. In Unbreakable’s case, it made for a movie that had a very novel premise, but felt hamstrung and too restrained. With Signs, Shyamalan has taken a clichéd premise (alien invasion) and turned it into one of the creepiest ruminations on faith and God you’re likely to find.