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Movie Review: Signs

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Starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, and Rory Culkin

Rated PG-13, 106 minutes

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan


Signs is a worthy successor to its two predecessors in the Shyamalan Supernatural Pantheon, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. At its best, it is a brilliant homage to the shining moments of Hitchcockian suspense, all done in the director’s own distinctive style; at its worst, it is thin science fiction augmented by the kind of cheap jump-scare shots Hitchcock disdained. Thankfully for its audience, Signs is at its best far more often than it is at its worst.


Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) is a former small town priest, still called “Father” by almost everyone, who abandoned faith and Church after the tragic death of his wife. He lives with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and young children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). Hess has settled into a quiet life, living on a farm with expansive cornfields. His lack of faith and bitterness toward the god he cast aside are prominent character traits, and they color many of his words in the movie.


Life in rural Buck’s County changes, though, when a mysterious crop circle appears in one of Hess’ fields. Reports come in of similar things all over the world. Shyamalan does acknowledge, via the news reporters, that crop circles are hoaxes to anyone who doesn’t still have a deep spiritual need to believe in all manners of bogeymen, so at least he’s responsible on that account. Hess and family don’t know what to make of their own crop circle when another one pops up. Reports of mysterious lights in the sky from all over the world follow.


There are many quietly humorous and some laugh-out-loud funny moments as the Hess family tries to figure out if aliens really are coming to Earth. Signs easily has the most laughs of any Shyamalan film to date, which seems appropriate given the often absurd nature of alien propaganda. The shot of the skeptical Merrill and the kids sitting on the couch, wearing ridiculous tinfoil hats that turned their heads into giant Hershey’s Kisses – so the aliens can’t read their minds, of course – is especially funny.


I can’t say much more about the movie without giving too much important stuff away. The suspense and tension do a typical Shyamalan slow burn, with the director’s love of panoramic shots and unusual trust in silence helping that much more. Shymalan’s usual themes (strong child characters, the evolving father/son dynamic, and a simple spirituality that ties everything together) are present and abundant in Signs. The supernatural is also very close to reality in Signs, as it is in his other films. In fact, it is Shymalan’s adroit overlay of the supernatural atop the everyday world that makes the jump-scare scenes so effective. This isn’t a freak in a hockey mask butchering scantily-clad coeds; Signs is suspenseful precisely because it is so believable.


It is with this movie that I think Shyamalan realizes he’s made it in Hollywood. As such, Signs strikes me as the film most invested of the director’s ego. Shyamalan’s extended cameo is a perfect example. He gave himself a very small role in Unbreakable, but in Signs, Shyamalan has cast himself as the most important character in the film. His character (for those who don’t recognize him, he plays the veterinarian) is vitally important to both Graham Hess and the overall story at two key junctures of the movie. No other character in Signs plays the linchpin role so completely.


In toto, Signs is a well-made film that supports a carefully-told story. Shyamalan’s attention to detail is commendable in this era of loose ends and short attention spans: all character tags and quirky habits figure into the denouement, from asthma, to the baseball bat, to the half-consumed glasses of water. Signs is an effective allegory wrapped up in a compelling suspense story. Its reliance on unnecessary jump-scare shots to get reactions from the audience is cheap, but the film as a whole suffers little for amateur tactics so surprising from someone as capable as Shyamalan. This is an easy one to recommend. 8/10


Dr. Tom

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