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With: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, M. Night Shyamalan
Written by: M. Night Shyamalan
Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some frightening moments
Running Time: 106
Date: 07/29/2002

Signs (2002)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cornfield of Screams

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Most UFO/alien invasion movies have a cornfield in them, but this is the first time that the cornfield -- and the people who live nearby -- has been the center of the whole movie.

Usually these movies start with a crackpot farmer who spots the UFO or some beastie from outer space on his property, but then the plot shifts over to some local square-jawed hero, his fianc´┐Że (who usually wears a tight sweater), the local sheriff, a scientist and various members of the military -- all of whom deliver their lines in a professional, monotone manner.

Writer/director M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable) realized that the crackpot farmer is the most interesting part of the story. And so with his mind-blowing new film Signs, he spends 90% of the story focused in one place and on only four characters.

Mel Gibson not only plays the crackpot farmer, named Graham Hess, but also the standard-issue character of the defrocked priest; he lost his faith when his wife died six months earlier in a gruesome car accident. He has two kids: an asthmatic boy named Morgan (Rory Culkin) and a daughter named Bo (Abigail Breslin) who has a strange phobia about drinking water -- she leaves half-drunk glasses all over the house. ("It's contaminated," she's fond of saying.)

At the same time, Graham's brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) has come to stay and lend a hand. He's a former minor-league ballplayer who holds not only the record for the longest home run ever hit but also the record for the most strikeouts.

The movie begins with the discovery of the crop circles on the Hess cornfields. Graham calls Caroline Paski (Cherry Jones), the officer who was on duty during Graham's wife's accident, to check it out. Other than her and Shyamalan himself -- who in a delicious Hitchcockian twist plays the driver of the car that killed Graham's wife -- no other major characters turn up. The action unfolds entirely from the point of view of the Hess family and their farm.

Using this tactic, Shyamalan manages to spend little time and effort on special effects and boring explanations -- and plenty of time on pure terror. He goes the old-school trail blazed in the 1940s by Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur (Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man), barely showing the aliens at all, instead focusing on sounds, lights and shadows.

While hiding in the basement the Hess family hears a noise. The camera turns where they would naturally look -- at the wall. Though we can't actually see anything, we want to understand what the noise is and where it's coming from, and so we look futilely at a wall. It's a simple and brilliant tactic. In another shot, an icky alien hand grabs young Morgan from behind a coal chute. Shyamalan cuts to a dropped flashlight lying on the ground; we can only hear the scuffle. It's far more terrifying that actually showing it. (The recent Eight Legged Freaks is a living example.)

I'm trying not to give away too much information about Signs, which comes complete with a payoff a great deal subtler but every bit as punchy as in The Sixth Sense. Shyamalan is one of the only filmmakers out there who knows how to hold onto all his cards until the game is over, and I don't want to give anything away that he himself wouldn't give away.

I will say, however, that Shyamalan has managed to get a good deal of intentional humor into this otherwise tense and terrifying tale. One hilarious moment has the UFO-savvy Morgan and his sister donning tinfoil hats to keep the aliens from "scanning his brain." When Graham goes out on an errand he comes back to find all three of his family members sitting on the couch and wearing the odd headgear. Shyamalan uses a brilliantly timed cut to execute the joke, and there's plenty more where that came from.

It helps that Gibson's warm, goofy persona is involved here, yet on a very subtle level. His character is for the most part intensely sad and quiet, but his charm slips through whenever it's needed most. And Shyamalan keeps it all in balance.

Likewise, Phoenix gives a beautifully understated performance that more than makes up for his embarrassing ham work in Gladiator.

I also want to mention the praiseworthy music score by James Newton Howard, who also worked on Shyamalan's previous films. During the opening titles, the music warns us in no uncertain terms that this will be a scary movie with giant crashes and huge tidal waves of sound -- not unlike the great Bernard Herrmann's scores for Alfred Hitchcock's films. But when the movie actually starts, the music fades away to a little tickle here, a little jab here -- barely noticeable. In fact, the movie's use of utter silence is masterfully and amazingly unsettling. (Road to Perdition could have taken a cue from Signs.)

And yet, with all this good stuff going on, I suspect that Signs will be greeted with a half-hearted shrug by most filmgoers. The problem is that Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense was such a huge hit that it has tainted the rest of his career; everything else he makes will have to try to stack up to it. In my eyes, his later films DO stack up, but they're just not as easily digestible or easily understood. Unbreakable was a complicated and playful film that benefited from a second viewing, but not many people even bothered with a first.

Like Quentin Tarantino, Shyamalan has a taste for what's usually not shown. He's more interested in the spaces between stories than in the same old story elements we've seen time and again. He strikes me as a filmmaker that's still growing, still establishing a foothold (Signs isn't as visually flashy as Unbreakable). He still hasn't made a great film -- he overexplains things toward the end of this new one -- but he's undeniably interesting.

To that end, he uses both the old defrocked-priest plotline and the old trapped-in-a-small-place-without-medicine plotline (used earlier this year in Panic Room), but he uses them -- and connects them -- for a distinct purpose, which is revealed only at the end.

Indeed, Signs isn't even really a movie about UFOs, any more than The Sixth Sense was about child psychology. It's a movie that asks you to believe in something and gives you some delicious chills along the way.

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