By Joe Lozito
A friend of mine described "Signs", the new thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, as: "4 people, a farm house and a load of corn". That is, more or less, what a majority of the film boils down to. That's not necessarily a bad thing. You could describe "Rear Window" as "a guy in a wheelchair and a pair of binoculars" or "Jaws" as "3 men and a shark". But "Signs" feels as if Mr. Shyamalan is challenging himself to make a film with those limitations. Surely he is feeling a bit of pressure after bursting onto the scene with 1999's "The Sixth Sense".
With "Sense", Mr. Shyamalan had a great script to backup his instinctual directorial vision. When he moved on to "Unbreakable", he had a great idea, but not a fully realized script. Now with "Signs" he takes an interesting concept - crop circles appearing mysteriously around the world - and takes it to a slow, linear, almost anti-climactic conclusion.
Like his previous films, Mr. Shyamalan has assembled a top-notch cast. Mel Gibson is sturdy and commanding as a recently widowed father and former reverend with two children (the insanely adorable Abigail Breslin and the precocious Rory Culkin). Joaquin Phoenix may give his best performance yet as Mr. Gibson's blue-collar younger brother - gone is the affectation that plagued him in "Gladiator". Here, Mr. Phoenix is at ease in his jeans and T-shirt - free to explore more familiar terrain.
Mr. Shyamalan is a confident director and he only steals from the best. Alfred Hitchcock's spirit firmly haunts this film - from the bold type of the opening credits, to the high-pitched strings on the soundtrack, to the claustrophobic setting, to the director's cameo sequence - "Signs" is an old-fashioned, "don't go in there" thriller. Again, like the best directors before him, Mr. Shyamalan realizes that it's what the audience does not see that can be scariest. Even at the end of the film, after a blatant "Night of the Living Dead" rip-off, when he must deliver the goods, Mr. Shyamalan wisely opts for implication and reflection instead of gratuitous effects.
As a writer, Mr. Shyamalan concentrates more on characterization here than in his previous efforts, while still maintaining a backdrop of suspense and dread. It's a good script with some interesting ideas about faith, but this a lot of movie to sit through for those few ideas. Also, the Shyamalan tricks are starting to show: the portents and red herrings, the long, dramatic pauses, the climactic flashback sequence. This time, however, instead of his near-trademark twisty ending, we're left with a moral that feels nothing short of hokey. Again, like in "Unbreakable", Mr. Shayamalan has some good things to say, and a good ear for dialogue, but his plot feels stretched. The long pauses that permeate the film almost play as padding instead of thoughtfulness.
Mr. Shayamalan is a gifted writer and filmmaker. He definitely has more great films in his future. However, he may need to take a step away from the paranormal thriller. Like John Woo, he is in danger of becoming a parody of himself. Thankfully, as a writer, Mr. Shayamalan injects some much-needed humor into "Signs", unlike his somber, and unappreciated, sophomore effort "Unbreakable". In the end, though, "Signs" doesn't signify much.