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Signs

01/09/2002. Contributed by Mark R Leeper

Buy Signs in the USA - or Buy Signs in the UK

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In this UFO horror flick, Mel Gibson must protect his family from something real or imaginary that has not shown its face, but has seemingly left signs of its presence around the world, causing international anxiety. Hey, who burned those blinking weird circles in my lawn!

From the first shot of the film, M. Night Shyamalan suffuses the film with tension, dread, and a feeling of alienation. The worldwide crisis almost remains of little import in the backdrop as the story focuses on the effects of fear and panic and on the relation of the Gibson character with his faith. This is a beautifully crafted and edited film that leaves the viewer very edgy.

Rating: 8 (0 to 10), high +2 (-4 to +4)

Mel Gibson in Signs

Newspapers sometimes run a certain type of puzzle. They give you extreme close-up photos of common objects. It may be part of a cheese grater or a vacuum cleaner. But when we see this extreme close-up it looks unfamiliar and strange. The point is for the reader to try to identify the object from the close-up. M. Night Shyamalan plays the same game with close-up details of plots we have seen before.

He will do a fascinating study embedded in what could be a familiar situation from other films. What is important is the texture of the detailed picture. He did that with UNBREAKABLE and he does it again with SIGNS. SIGNS is an in depth look within a specific type of familiar story. But it is a close-up on one terrified group of people in that bigger story. Alfred Hitchcock told this sort of story with his THE BIRDS, focusing on one unimportant household.

George Romero did it with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, looking at one besieged group in a farmhouse. Shyamalan does it in even closer detail then Hitchcock or Romero in SIGNS. The outside story has a familiar ring once it is pieced together, but we are too interested looking at one small group of people who are affected by the events of the story.

As the film opens we are looking at the yard of a house. But as we watch the scene undulates as if what we are looking at is not real or not what it seems. It looks like we are seeing a distorted digital image. Almost instantly we realize we are merely looking through a window that is slightly imperfectly made and which warped something that perfectly familiar so that it looked wrong and disturbing.

This one shot sets the tone for this film. Things that are normal will look subtly incorrect and disquietingly distorted. Shyamalan tells us that something is very wrong is happening to the world. Time is out of joint. Even normal things seem distorted and wrong. Shyamalan manages to keep the tension from flagging even while keeping the plot relatively static.

As the film begins Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), formerly Father Graham Hess, is already living an agonized life that destroys his sleep and warps his view of the world. (Perhaps he is in the same physical condition that the Pacino character is in INSOMNIA.) Why he is so tortured we will piece together later, for now we just know he is fighting demons of many types.

As in Daphne Du Maurier's original story "The Birds," we do not know how much of what is happening is real and how much is the result of the main character's damaged mind.

Hess does not need on top of his emotional damage the strange abstract pattern that appeared in his cornfield like crop circles. "Nerds," is the explanation he uneasily settles on. Guys who cannot get a date put that pattern in his field as a joke. That's neat but unconvincing and other people have other ideas. The viewer does not know what to think. Every theory for what is making these patterns is ridiculed by someone.

No sane explanation makes much sense for the system of crop patterns that is showing up worldwide. Meanwhile Graham is facing intruders on his farm which may or may not be making the Triffid-like tapping noises that Graham is hearing at odd moments. Hearing them at odd moments is almost as scary as hearing nothing.

Maybe sometimes he almost gets a glimpse of part of one of these things in his cornfield. I was reminded of the old William Allingham poem about fairies:

Up the airy mountain
Down the rushy glen,
We dare n't go a-hunting,
For fear of little men;

Through much of SIGNS we are not sure what it is we are afraid of, but we know something is out there. Shyamalan is a genuine craftsman composing scenes with strange camera angles and symbolic symmetries. His subject here is fear, and he impressively paints something as invisible as fear on the screen. So little is clear through much of the story yet we feel it is somehow scary.

Even Hess's motivations for leaving the church and losing his faith are only revealed though many clues as the story progresses. Little things from his background are left unexplained, and must be pieced together. When one frustrated character shouts "What in God's name is going on?" much of the audience is wondering the same thing.

Shyamalan populates the film with strange, out-of-whack characters like an Army recruiter who enthusiastically explains with an enigmatic smile on his face what strategy alien invaders would use. Shyamalan writes one character as a pickup-truck-style redneck named Ray, then the Indian director plays him himself very much against type.

This is not an action film. It is not even so much a film where nasty things jump out at the audience. It is a film with a cold metaphysical chill. I would like to say all this fine style actually built to a good story, but the story is less important and actually less interesting than the style.

The explanation of what is going on is a bland cliche and Hess's own story builds to a platitude. It is like Rembrandt had illustrated a Sunday installment of "The Family Circus." The real subject is not the plot. The real subject is fear and M. Night Shyamalan has given us a film of unwavering weirdness and intensity.

I give it an 8 on the 0 to 10 scale and a high +2 on the -4 to +4 scale.

Mark R. Leeper

Copyright 2002 Mark R. Leeper

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