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Signs
Reviewed by Carla Freccero

Now playing in theaters everywhere, M. Night Shyamalan’s newest film, Signs, builds on the writer-director’s already well-established reputation for that combination of suspense and science fiction that made The Sixth Sense such a box office hit.

Shyamalan writes, produces, and directs his own movies—and with mixed results. The directing is fabulous: his timing is always good, the suspense and intensity just right. As for the writing, well, like his mentor Spielberg, some of it’s really good and some of it is just too predictably saccharine. The Sixth Sense was a subtle film and although, as in Unbreakable, good and evil were the grand themes, at least they were all mixed up together. You could forgive the simple-mindedness of the moral values in Unbreakable, since it was about a cartoon universe, but Signs seems cartoonish by accident sometimes.

The guy’s smart, I’ll give him credit for that. There’s a lot of really funny stuff about how in a crisis people start reading meaning into everything and see signs everywhere. And, line for line, you can hear echoes of the kind of paranoid and apocalyptic talk that’s been going on since September 11th.

The story focuses on the mysterious simultaneous appearance of crop circles all over the world, and the world’s reaction to them, as seen through the media and as allegorized in the microcosm of a motherless family in rural Pennsylvania (Shyamalan grew up in Pennsylvania). Mel Gibson is Graham Hess, an ex-minister with two young children; his brother, Merrill, played by Joaquin Phoenix, lives next door.

The children, Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin, are great: while at first we think they’re suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, little by little we begin to think that they may be the sanest of the lot. Gibson is too confusing, an amalgam of his comic, brutal-heroic, and sentimental personae all rolled in to one. Phoenix seems uncomfortable in his characteristically decadent but somehow responsible nice guy role. Oh, and by the way, the film also has Shyamalan himself in it, as someone who made a terrible mistake, thus unfortunately conveying the message that the bad guys are all aliens and people of color.

All of Shyamalan’s films feature a crisis of faith: a basically decent but sort of existentially lost pater familias, estranged from his wife and kids, wanders smack into a situation that tests his mettle. Signs does this with a lot of solemnity and humor, and keeps us guessing about the outcome—is the problem the state of Graham’s soul or the state of the world?

With regard to the crises of faith that have shook the American public in the past year, Signs seems to get a lot of it right, with plenty of humor and scariness. But somehow it too gets sucked into the grand psychosis that follows upon national—or, as this movie would have it, global—trauma, and succumbs.

Whereas The Sixth Sense meditated quite beautifully on the meaning of loss and grief, Signs must instead be relentlessly upbeat and triumphant, ratifying our collective paranoia and our most aggressively combative responses to fear. All of this, while resolutely avoiding some pointed political commentary in favor of leaps of faith.

Looking for trouble at the movies, for KUSP and the film gang, this is Carla Freccero.

 

Copyright Carla Freccero, 2002