Signs

“Signs,” is an intense, thoughtful thriller about what happens to a Pennsylvania farmer and his family when they discover crop circles in their corn field. Widely believed to be a hoax, the circles have a fan base with people who deal in conspiracies, and attribute the patterns to aliens (sort of an intergalactic global tracking system).


Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan explores both sides of the controversy in “Signs,” and his conclusion should have most audience members glued to their theater seat, knuckles gripped firmly around the armrest. Filled with strong performances, introspective dialogue and a constant barrage of suspense, “Signs” reaffirms Shyamalan’s status as one of Hollywood’s true visionaries. His sense of style, and ability to evoke natural, honest performances from his actors, especially children, makes Shyamalan one of the best storytellers to grace the screen since Steven Spielberg. Shyamalan joins the ranks of a very small list of writer-directors capable of transporting us into their world without thought or regard to our immediate surroundings. Most films are so mediocre that even the slightest disturbance in the theater takes you out of the movie.

With “Signs,” not only do those annoyances become obsolete, we become so engrossed by what is on the screen it becomes impossible to turn away. Our curiosity and imagination hold us hostage, and we immediately surrender. The director doesn’t disappoint. For two hours we become participants in a riveting, harrowing and at times unbearable story of lost faith and the eternal crusade between good and evil.

Mel Gibson, who like a good wine gets better with age, is moving and poignant as Graham Hess, a single father raising his two children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) on a Buck County, Pennsylvania farm he shares with his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix).

Formerly a reverend, Graham lost his faith when his wife Colleen (Patricia Kalember) was killed in a freak car accident. Six months after her death, Graham is still trying to deal with the pain. Even though he left the church, the locals, including Police Officer Caroline Paski (Sherry Jones), still insists on calling father.

As a writer, Shyamalan wisely drops us right into the middle of the story. One morning Morgan and Bo discover a crop circle in a corn field. Graham and Officer Paski want to believe that it’s the work of pranksters, but confess their fears to each other that the pattern and the way it was manufactured point to a different conclusion.

It’s at this point where Shyamalan, the director of “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” finds himself on familiar ground. While “Signs” is a drama of the highest order, it shares the same frame with a tightly wound supernatural suspense thriller that is so effective and convincing that we willing follow the director where ever he takes us.

That happens to be down a frightening path where ordinary people come face to face with their darkest dreams, and must reclaim their faith in order to wake up from the nightmare. As a screenwriter, Shyamalan doesn’t waste a lot of words. He knows human reaction is more powerful, and allows the actors to say more with their expressions than their mouths. This works brilliantly in “Signs,” where too much verbiage would end up insulting the audience.

I appreciate Shyamalan having respect for the audience, giving us credit for being able to follow the plot without forcing the characters to paint us an oral road map. He cleverly lays the groundwork without drawing attention to the mechanics of the plot, which are seamless.

Gibson is excellent as a man haunted by and lost in his past, and gets equal support from everyone in the cast, from Joaquin Phoenix’s equally haunted younger brother, a man who let his dream of playing professional baseball slip away due to his insubordination, to Cherry Jones’ no-nonsense police officer who hides her fear behind a professional facade.

Next to Spielberg, no other director is capable of drawing authentic performances out of children than Shyamalan. First Haley Joel Osment in “The Sixth Sense,” then Spencer Treat Clark in “Unbreakable,” and now with Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin in “Signs,” Shyamalan proves his ability to elicit great performances from both adult and children is no fluke.

“Signs” is a sharp looking film, with the splendid director of photography Tak Fujimoto creating a constant sense of dread with stark shadows and reflections. James Newton Howard’s musical score underlines the emotional intensity of every frame, while editor Barbara Tulliver cuts with the precision of a master surgeon.

DESSERT

Respectable 1.85:1 widescreen transfer does justice to the film’s complex cinematography, which goes from bright and cheery to dark and depressing in a heartbeat. The very nature of this beast must have been a nightmare to transfer, since most of the film takes place in dark interiors, at night, or in shadows. Yet the final effort looks very good, with only a minuscule amount of grain apparent. Flesh tones are warm and inviting, while colors look natural and are presented with good saturation and absolutely no bleeding or fading. Blacks are for the most part solid, and shadows display a fair amount of detail. Depth of field is also excellent, especially in the daylight outdoor sequences. The corn stalks are so realistic you can almost touch them. The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack is quite expressive, including some unnerving surround effects that help you become part of the action. Front sound stage is alive with action, and displays an excellent stereo split. Dialogue mix is impressive, and rear speakers make good use of the film’s eerie ambient noise. Basses are there and used for effect, but are never overpowering. Middle and high ends sound terrific. No audible hiss or distortion. The soundtrack is also available in a dubbed French language version.

While director Shyamalan didn’t take the time to record an audio commentary, he does make up for the slight in an impressive hour-long documentary “The Making of Signs,” which is filled with the sort of highlights and extras that will make fans of this film smile from ear to ear. The documentary is broken down into six different segments, each one focusing on a different aspect of the filming process. Anyone with an interest in the film or the film-making process for that matter will find all of this informative and absorbing. Ever wonder how they made those crop circles? It wasn’t aliens, but there is also a look at how they made the aliens. The documentary also includes the usual array of interviews and pats on the back. There are a handful of deleted scenes, most of which are filler, and one that actually sheds new light on the plot. There is also an opportunity to examine two storyboards and compare them to the final product, complete with a choice of audio. Last but not least is a sneak peak at one of the director’s first alien films, with a short intro (almost an apology) by Shyamalan. DVD-ROM contents are just as evasive as the aliens, but it does connect you to the studio’s web page for the film.

SIGNS 2002

TOUCHSTONE HOME VIDEO

RATED PG-13

Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, Patricia Kalember. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13. 118 Minutes.

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