Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has a great gift, a pitch-perfect understanding of human emotion that separates him from his Hollywood peers. Too bad he has to temper his gift and wrap reality in a receiving blanket of the supernatural. Like The Sixth Sense, Signs nails the universal limits of our ability to get past loss. Like Unbreakable, it drags us too far into the cockamamy.
The hook this time out is not ghosts or would-be superheroes but crop circles. (Shyamalan apparently is a big fan of Art Bell, since the radio host frequently expounds on all three.) The mysterious shapes appear on the farmland of former Rev. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a man who has lost his wife, his belief, and is trying very hard not to lose his grip on day-to-day life. His brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix, who has never been softer or funnier) has moved in to help out; he has two kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and little Bo (Abigail Breslin), who are both wide-eyed and wise. These are not quite characters wandering about in a haze of grief, but they teeter upon the precipice of a greater, more damaging funk. Then come the titular signs, which focus the Hess family’s attention on matters large and small and, of course (cue the violins), each other.
What the cornfield phenomenon portends is revealed, bit by bit, with what by now must be manipulative glee on the part of the director in the wake of his previous box office successes. Make no mistake, Shyamalan knows precisely which buttons to push (and when) within individual scenes and the movie as a whole. It’s what keeps us coming back for more, and at times his use of the paranormal makes for great comedy in the face of the character’s fear (watch for a sweaty, red-lidded Phoenix to take up residence in a closet as obsession takes hold). But despite being the necessary catalyst by which the bereaved Graham regains faith in his world, by the film’s conclusion the extraordinary “signs” become, for lack of a better word, silly. Silly is acceptable in a work that doesn’t play so earnestly with such important truths, but here it threatens to overshadow the emotional resonance at the film’s core.
Nowhere are those truths more clear than a scene deep in the film in which the characters have a last meal in anticipation of presumed Armageddon. It’s a scene that starts off innocently enough, and while the characters’ actions and, more importantly, words veer wildly out of their own control, Shyamalan knows exactly what he is doing. It’s the same reason that Cole acting as a conduit for his grandmother and mother late in The Sixth Sense is the most wrenching in a movie full of hard-to-take moments: Shyamalan gets us. He gets how we ascribe blame, however irrational. He gets how we crave approval and acceptance. He gets how awful we can be to the ones we care for most, and how, in a split second, rage can give way to embrace. He gets how fear motivates us and how love drives us.
Shyamalan’s grasp of the human condition saves this from being a movie that has equal and opposite failure for every scene that shines; it’s better than that. The suspense works in all the right ways, and the nervous humor too. But the nagging feeling that what has been set on the screen is a little too hard to swallow makes it difficult to focus when such silliness, both imagined and physically committed to film, is a frame or two away from the intensity of Gibson’s panicked, anguished brow. Signs builds toward an obvious, inevitable conclusion, and while the journey is worth taking, the final moments seem cheap and easy. But maybe that’s just Shyamalan telling us that he, too, is human. Doesn’t he know we could never doubt him, even when we doubt ourselves?
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