' ' Cinema Romantico: My Great Movies: Signs

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Great Movies: Signs

I have not had many moviegoing experiences to rival that of M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs" in the summer of 2002. It is two hours of unbelievable suspense, building beat by beat. But Shymalan never cheats. He never outraces his own story. As David Ansen of Newsweek noted regarding the film, "Shyamalan starts with characters, and builds from the ground up."

It is rare the movie that revels in silence. At the start, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) has awoken in his rural Pennsylvania farmhouse. He brushes his teeth, and as he does a scream is heard off camera. The movie switches to the exterior. Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) race through a cornfield, the sound of the two men pushing their way through the stalks. He finds his two children Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and their dogs barking. "I think God did it," says Morgan. "Did what, Morgan?" asks Graham. It is the crop signs from which the film gains its title. What is key is the fact all the events leading up to the massive pullback shot is done without music. Later there is a scene of Merrill about to enter the farmhouse and pausing to hurl a rock into the field. Again, no soundtrack. It's nothing beyond the wind, the sound of the corn rustling in it, and windchimes on the deck. And it is absolutely haunting.

It is rare the movie which revels in patience. Shyamalan has become infamous for his films' twists but "Signs" really offers no twists so much as it methodically peels back layers of characterization. The family's dog wets the floor and Graham advises they should call "Dr. Crawford." "He doesn't treat animals," replies Morgan. Why won't Graham call the vet? Bo leaves glasses of water scattered all over the house, thinking each one to be more contaminated than the last, which Morgan explains as a "tic". Yet, we wonder if that's all it is. Characters call Graham "father" and he advises he is not a "reverend anymore". Why not? Merrill has come to live with the family at the farm and we wonder what brought him here.

Once the crop signs have been found Graham summons a local deputy (Cherry Jones) to the farm. Upon arrival she immediately delivers a monologue about an older woman on whom she had to check - a typical false alarm, we reason. Shyamalan does not fast-forward to the ominous developments but lets the movie breathe. Daily rhythms are established even as we can feel dread gathering off in the distance.

Graham thinks the crop signs may simply be the prank of another local farmer's kids only to have the TV reveal more and more crop signs turning up in other countries. They're happening at too fast a rate. Is it an elaborate hoax? Or is it for real?

Now the TV shows lights appearing in the air above Mexico City. The Mexican and American governments confirm they are not aircraft of either country. Is it life from another planet? "Some people are probably thinking this is the end of the world," says Merrill.

It is at this point the movie reveals its grandest moment. Merrill asking his brother, the former minister, to offer words of comfort, and it is also in this moment the movie reveals its theme.

"Signs" is a distinct homage to the aliens-invade-earth films so prevalent in the 1950's. Don't think so? Go back and rewatch those opening credits. Notice the acting of our two leads, Gibson and Phoenix. The primary actors in those 50's films never showed giant range in emotion and, while Gibson and Phoenix are both quite capable, in this movie they reign it way in while the supporting players are allowed to be more extreme (the army general that Merrill briefly encounters). The leads in those movies never acted as if they believed, even though the audience knew they did.

At one point Merrill makes this homage explicit: "It's like 'War of the Worlds.'" But those films were never simply about aliens invading our planet. "War of the Worlds" has offered parallels to current society in its many different versions, most currently referencing the newfound threat of terrorism in Spielberg's 2005 release. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was an attack on McCarthyism (the filmmakers claim this wasn't the case and perhaps it wasn't, but it certainly seems like it was). "The Day Earth Stood Still" was wrapped up in all sorts of religious allegory and therefore may share the most in common with Shyamalan's film.

"Signs" is about faith, and like many of the invasion films of the 50's it paints things in broad, black & white strokes. Graham's comforting words to Merrill on the couch put this on full display, breaking things down into two simple categories. Do you see signs, see miracles? Or is no one (specifically God) watching out for us? Are we all on our own?

I admit to sometimes grappling with these questions myself and while I tend to side with Merrill - "I'm a miracle man" - I often wonder if Graham doesn't make a strong case for his viewpoint. The real world, of course, contains far more complexity then this monologue serving at the film's crux but I'm able to find that complexity in other cinematic offerings.

"Signs", however, is not just a parable, it is a director in complete command of his medium with implicit trust in his story. Several times he lets his characters talk with unbroken shots for minutes at a time. Yet, when the camera moves it does so with a purpose in mind. Notice the shot when Graham receives an unexpected phone call. The camera is positioned in another room, behind a door, and as the phone call ends the camera pulls back and what it shows in conjunction with who was on the other end of the line is shattering.

The film is wrought with suspense but Shyamalan does not merely make it suspenseful with directorial flourishes and sudden chords banged on the soundtrack meant to provoke a shout or a jump-in-your-seat situation (the most useless barometer of how scary a film is). He understands that most often what you don't see is the scariest of all. Something locked behind a pantry door. Something glimpsed in a cornfield. A struggle that happens offscreen while the camera simply watches a dropped flashlight. The moment of TV news footage at a birthday party does show something, but presents it has herky jerky camera work in the context of TV news footage so it mirrors reality.

Many people were disappointed in the film's aliens but the aliens were never really the point. To paraphrase the esteemed Roger Ebert, it's not the aliens we enjoy, but the waiting for the aliens. They're just one piece of the puzzle. They're not the point. The point is the Hess family coming to terms with their collective weaknesses.

When I sit down in the theater in summer to watch a movie there are a number things for which I'm hoping. I want to be entertained, to escape to the world on the screen in front of me. I want to be caught up in the events, wholly involved, leaning forward in my seat, sometimes gripping the side of my seat. I want to laugh, I want to cry, I want to care, and I want some emotion and meaning mixed in, but not too much. By that criteria, "Signs" is pretty much the perfect summer movie.


Wretched Genius said...

I am also a huge fan of Signs for almost the exact same reasons you've stated. And I'd like to call attention to yet another great example of Shyamalan building suspense offscreen. In the 3rd act, as the family is getting ready to hide in the basement, they hear the dog barking outside. The camera focuses on the living room wall, slowly zooming in (the barking is taking place outside of the house, on the other side of that wall). The dog barks angrily, suddenly whimpers in pain, and the barking stops. In this one shot, maybe 10-seconds long, Shyamalan has established that:

1. The aliens have arrived, &
2. They are dangerous.

And he does this by having us stare at an unchanging wall.

Anonymous said...

The aliens invaded a planet made up almost completely of water, where water literally falls from the sky, and where the indiginous population clusters around water. They wore no protective clothing or space suits. And their one weakness is WATER.

Granted, I have a feeling our current administration would do the same thing, but I don't care how suspenseful a movie is. That was such a horrible plot hole that I cannot forgive.

Although the birthday party scene was pretty cool.

Nick Prigge said...

But that's NOT a plot hole. If Shyamalan hadn't established the aliens' weakness earlier in the film, which he did via his daughter leaving glasses of water all over the house, and then suddenly made it the weakness THAT would be a plot hole.

A movie is only what it shows us. The audience can't speak for the aliens and their reasons and motivations since the movie never does.