M. Night Shyamalan had a huge, surprise hit with his first movie, 1999's The Sixth Sense. It was a movie that caught people off guard with its quality and especially the huge, twist ending that on repeated viewings seems painfully obvious, but that first viewing? About as complete a shock as a movie can produce. But since Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's movies have gone progressively downhill for the most part. The one exception seems to be 2002's Signs.
It's easier judging movies at the time they were made and not 8 years later because a lot can change in that time. But with Signs, it's hard not to see how the mighty have fallen. Shyamalan's four movies since have ranged from below average to panned and stars Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix have both hit some road blocks in their career, more on a personal level with personal choices than actual career choices. But at the time they were all near or at the top of their games in terms of fan following and a general popularity. Since? Maybe not so much, but it's hard not to watch this movie and think about the departures from success this trio has gone through.
Living on his family farm some 45 miles outside Philadelphia, former reverend Graham Hess (Gibson) wakes up one morning to find huge crop circles in his cornfields. What could they mean? Are they elaborate pranks, hoaxes performed by teenagers, or just maybe, could they be something else, something other worldly? With his brother Merrill (Phoenix) and his two kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), Graham begins to question what's happening, and he's not the only one. Similar crop circles start popping up in countries all over the world while strange, unexplained lights float over these cities. As the world questions what is going on, Graham remains focused on getting his family through whatever is about to happen.
From the moment the opening credits started and composer James Newton Howard's score kicked in, all I could think was how much the movie's style reminded me of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Playing on some Hitchcockian tendencies, Shyamalan makes an often unsettling thriller that for the most part keeps you guessing. He creates a very thick tension, a sense of the coming doom that is about to hit this little farm. The story is almost entirely contained at the Hess farm with a few quick detours and a character here and there making an appearance. But above all else, this is a story about the Hess family and their struggles and solutions for this unexplained phenomena taking place all over the world.
Through his handful of movies, Shyamalan has become typecast as the "ending twist director." You go into his movies now thinking 'I wonder how he's going to trick us here' thanks to the con job he pulled in Sixth Sense. Well, here's the twist...sort of. There isn't a major, shocking slap you in the face surprise. If anything the ending is a little weak in its execution. Like a lot of thrillers that start off so strongly, Signs struggles to maintain that pace throughout. It's like Christmas Eve. You see the presents and wonder what's in them. The wait and wonder can be half the fun. The revelation here -- while creepy and well-handled -- falls short in a lot of ways, especially in its resolution. This isn't a movie-derailing flaw, just one that prevented it from being a near-classic. The ending is good, but not great.
In the news more for his anti-Semitic rants lately, Gibson shows here that as always, he was a very capable actor capable of pulling off incredibly dramatic roles. His Graham Hess is a tortured soul, one struggling with an incident from the past that claimed his wife's life. He tries to trudge on, to start life over again in a sense, raising his kids as best he can. Graham struggles with the faith that carried him through even the roughest patches in the past and doesn't quite know how to handle this dilemma. Phoenix has said he's retiring from acting -- a shame because of his epic talent -- and this is another quirky role for him. I can't put my finger on Merrill, a middle-aged man who never quite lived up to his potential and knows it but is nonetheless a good man who moves in with his brother to help raise the children. A very solid supporting performance. Culkin and Breslin also impress on the child actor scale, never grating or annoying, just good actors.
The movie has its fair share of creepy moments with the sense of the unknown hovering over the world. Shyamalan's shooting style emphasizes all this with camera work that is never invasive or over the top. His camera isn't moving all around. Scenes are long, unedited takes that put you on edge because you keep waiting for something huge, something shocking to come flying at the camera. The fact that the huge surprise never comes? A complaint, but not a major one. The build-up and tension is strong enough to carry the movie past some of its struggles in the last third.
Signs <---trailer (2002): ***/****