MORIARTY Has Seen SIGNS!! Spoiler Free and Spoiler Heavy Reviews Available!!
Published at: July 27, 2002, 5:21 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Let’s do this the short way first, so that you can move on if you don’t want any spoilers, which is actually what I would recommend until you’ve seen the film.
SIGNS is a very well-made thriller with something on its mind, another exemplary full-length TWILIGHT ZONE episode from a director who is rapidly becoming one of the most distinct mainstream stylists working. It’s worth seeing, and is sure to spur more conversation than any other film this summer, especially concerning the conclusion of the picture. Performances are outstanding all around, and the work of cinematographer Tak Fujimoto along with composer James Newton Howard is as good as it gets in major studio movies today. I have some problems with it, but none that would keep me from telling someone to see the movie. Some people will worship this film, others will dismiss it out of hand, but no matter where you stand on it, it will definitely cause you to react. The big joke is that no matter what, this review won't be positive enough to satisfy his fans, or negative enough to please his detractors.
Okay. So if you haven’t seen the film, or if you don’t want to know spoilers (since there’s no way to speak coherently about this film without dealing with all of it, the ending included), now is the time to click “BACK” and return to the front page.
Okay. I’m serious. I’m going to tell you what happens in the living room at the end of the movie. You really want to know that?
SIGNS is not a genre film, per se. Yes, on the surface, you could describe it as INDEPENDENCE DAY with a brain. For those of you familiar with the proposed CLOSE ENCOUNTERS sequel that Steven Spielberg was set to produce (with John Sayles writing and Ron Cobb directing, I might add) called NIGHT SKIES, this film feels like a direct nod to that movie that might have been. It’s fitting, since there seem to be three directors that Shyamalan is emulating with his work in equal measure: Spielberg, Hitchcock, and Rod Serling.
One of the things that will make many people love SIGNS is the thing that frustrates me most about it. It wants to tell a serious story about faith, and how we can both lose it and find it under the strangest of circumstances. That’s a fine idea. The problem is that Shyamalan seems to veer from being a remarkably effective screenwriter in places to being a stultifyingly heavy-handed one in a matter of pages. Some of the “big points” in the film are underlined in red and circled twice, just so we don’t miss them. This is at its most painful in a nightmarishly poorly paced cutaway during the climax of the film. Shyamalan feels the need to take the audience by the hand and walk them back through the movie just so we don’t miss any of his remarkably clever clues. He’s so proud of himself that it’s off-putting. The last shot of the movie is a doozy, a quietly emotional kicker that would have been a shot to the gut for me if only Shyamalan had a little more faith in me as a viewer. So much of this film is so smart that when it crosses the line to become condescending, it’s jarring.
And don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to like about this movie. It’s really well built for the most part. The beginning is almost immediately hypnotic, drawing you in with a series of terse, almost abstract sequences. Character and plot begin to suggest themselves. Shyamalan takes his time, allows this family to fill in the details slowly, in their own time.
Mel Gibson is at his very best here. Like Bruce Willis, he seems energized by the things Shyamalan has given him to do. He’s holding back so much pain and sorrow through much of this film that when it finally leaks, he can’t stop it, and his flood of anger and heartbreak is genuinely affecting. He keeps hurting those around him because he doesn’t know how to pick himself up after a crippling blow from fate. He didn’t just lose faith; he lost Faith. He’s a reverend who gave up his collar in the face of what he saw as unacceptable horror. His wife was killed in a way that proved to him that there was no God. We get hints of this over the course of the film, and the less explicit Shyamalan keeps things, the more effective they are. Gibson’s portrayal of Graham Hess is the very definition of what a movie star is supposed to do. He takes a character that is sketched simply and gives real life to it. His face is showing age clearly now, and Shyamalan is smart enough to get in close and show us every one of those lines. This is a guy who has been weathered by experience, and when he simply gives up and crumbles in the face of the unexplained, it’s shocking.
I would say that Joaquin Phoenix is equally well-used in the film. This is an actor who has always been interesting, all the way back to his role in PARENTHOOD, when he was still calling himself Leaf. But in the last few years, Joaquin has emerged as a strong, centered presence in film, someone who can be counted on as a supporting actor to do just exactly that: provide support. His work as Graham’s brother Merrill is wonderful, nuanced and solid work. They feel like they could genuinely be brothers. There’s a great sense of give and take between them. Graham may be gripped by a crisis of faith, but Merrill is a rock. He sums his personal philosophy up in several great scenes, but it’s one line of his that really stuck with me: “It just felt wrong not to swing.” In context, it’s almost a joke, but it’s also deeply revelatory. This is someone who simply has to try for the best in any moment, in any situation. It’s a fault. You can try too hard. But there’s no shame in trying, and at least Merrill has a philosophy, something he holds to, something he genuinely believes. In the end, I get the idea that it doesn’t matter to Shyamalan what you believe or what faith you prescribe to. What is important is simply that you believe something. Without faith as an anchor in this world, he seems to be saying, we are adrift.
The film plays out as a smarter, character driven variation on something like INDEPENDENCE DAY. Instead of watching The President and The Best Fighter Pilot Alive and The Genius Who Just Happens To Be Right At The Center Of Things and various other stereotypes all standing at ground zero of the invasion and Earth’s defense, we are watching the story of one family, on the fringe of things, and we see how it all unfolds from their point of view. As a result, we can lose ourselves in these characters and this story. It’s very contained and personal.
One of the things that gives the film such a strong pull is that Shyamalan doesn’t waste a single scene. Exposition isn’t just jammed down our throats. Instead, we’re in the story from that first moment, that first discovery. Things unfold for us in a very subtle, natural progression. News stories are glimpsed in the background at first, then gradually move into the foreground as the situation gets more dire. The television itself becomes a harbinger of dread, an intruder. One of my favorite moments in the movie involves Joaquin Phoenix watching a broadcast and seeing a particular image. His shocked reaction, and the reactions on the tape immediately flashed me back to the morning of September 11th, and hearing those same shocked exclamations, those sounds of disbelief and horror. It’s powerful because it feels absolutely right. This is no overblown end of the world scenario. It is chillingly precise, small-scale, and human. There’s a remarkable sense of menace that he manages to build as the film progresses, a tightening of the screws that becomes nearly unbearable. He’s canny about the use of humor to lighten the mood at just the right moments. SIGNS is surprisingly funny, especially considering how dour Shyamalan is capable of being when he wants to be.
As a director, he’s taken some major steps forward this time out. UNBREAKABLE’s great flaw is the use of the long uninterrupted takes for almost every scene in the film. Each one, individually, is well-staged, but that rhythm becomes positively funereal, and Shyamalan didn’t give himself any coverage, any options in cutting the film. Oddly, it’s UNBREAKABLE and not SIXTH SENSE that feels like a film about dead people thanks to its pace. This time out, Shyamalan is more limber, more willing to experiment with each scene, and the result is engrossing.
As good as Shyamalan is with actors, his specialty seems to be his work with children. Both Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin do convincing work here. Breslin is both unspeakably cute and deeply sad as Bo, a preturnaturally poised little girl who has many of the film’s best lines. Culkin’s anger is just as potent as Gibson’s, and he makes Graham’s son Morgan impossible to ignore. He’s young, but he’s not afraid to stand up to his father, especially when it comes to protecting his sister. Morgan wants to heal, but can’t as long as Graham is in pain, and it’s tearing the boy apart.
There’s really only two other performers of note in the whole film, since it’s such a contained experience. Cherry Jones is the town’s sheriff, and M. Night himself shows up in a key role. I thought he was very effective with the emotional material he gave himself to play, even if I thought his scene ladled the exposition on a little thick. Still, great punchline, and it leads into one of the creepiest moments in the film. Shyamalan deserves credit for being able to wring so much tension out of such a simple set-up. He also really plays with the audience in the basement a little later. I’ve heard a few people already cry BLAIR WITCH, but the sequence owes just as much to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and there’s no denying the simple truth that it works. This is one of those films that you should try and see with a big crowd, because they’re going to be half the fun as they react.
There are images in the film that work in an almost subliminal way, and a big part of that is due to the stunning work of Tak Fujimoto. What effects there are in the film are equally impressive, and it’s because of the restraint here. ILM deserves special kudos for proving that less can indeed be more. There’s an encounter in some corn stalks early on that puts you on edge, even if it does raise some questions about morning dew based on what we see regarding water later in the film. I like how all of the shots of alien craft are handled on the television, as news footage that is as disturbing as it is vague in some ways.
In a way, I wish that Shyamalan hadn’t written such a great ending for THE SIXTH SENSE. I remember reading that script (along with LABOR OF LOVE, a great unproduced work from earlier) at the urging of my friend Den, who always had great taste in scripts. He was a major fan of Shyamalan before I ever heard the name. He’s the one who gave me the lovely STUART LITTLE draft to read. He’s the one who told me the story of how LABOR OF LOVE almost got made, but how the development went sour and broke Shyamalan’s heart a bit. He wrote THE SIXTH SENSE in a fit of anger, determined to get a film made that would confirm his ability as a storyteller. So often, great art comes out of friction, and on the page, THE SIXTH SENSE was one of the best reads I’ve ever had. I reviewed it early in ’99, when it was still under everyone’s radar, and at that point, I was a strong advocate for this largely unknown writer/director.
I still am. If anything, UNBREAKABLE and SIGNS frustrate me to varying degrees because of how much is right about them. I think SIGNS is Shyamalan’s best film to date until the last ten minutes, where I think it’s clumsy about connecting the dots. Does that mean I dislike the film or that I dislike the filmmaker? Not at all. I plan to go to this film opening weekend with some friends just so I can see how the crowds react. I think this is going to make mad bank for Disney, and that it will further confirm Shyamalan’s place as their greatest live-action corporate asset. I hope, though, that he continues to grow as a filmmaker, and I pray that his producers challenge him. I’ve heard all sorts of stories about how hands-off he has become regarding his work, how he refuses to entertain any major notes. He’s spoken at length about how he has some magical secret to filmmaking that is known only to him and to Spielberg, the sort of comment that makes him easy to dislike. There is an arrogance that is inherent to the idea that any of us have stories to tell that are worth $50 million or $75 million or $150 million worth of a company’s money to make. Arrogance is required in order for any artist to do what they do. Unchecked, though, it can eventually weaken what it best about their work. Shyamalan could use some friction. LABOR OF LOVE may have been a terrible experience for him, but it led to THE SIXTH SENSE. I understand how easy it is to become a control freak in this business, especially if you've had commercial success. Still, he could use someone who pushed him to take his good ideas and polish them that last little bit.
And, hell, I understand. Endings are tough. Especially when you hit the grand slam home run of endings with your first big hit. There is a standoff at the end of this film, and the notion of the scene isn’t a bad one. It’s our only face to face encounter with the unknown in the film, and there’s something desperate and sad about the scenario the way it’s set up. But the mechanics of the plot that kick in during the scene and the housekeeping that Shyamalan has to do choke all the life out of the scene. It connects on a purely artificial level. I understand what the moment means, and what it is trying to do, but I don’t feel it. The seams show. For the first time, Shyamalan feels like he’s just plain trying too hard. The film is rich in subtext throughout, and he forces his hand, trying to dazzle, and somehow managing to dull the effect of the build-up instead. For the first time in his career, he feels like a comedian who is overexplaining a joke. Even worse, and ironically considering what he's trying to say, he feels like he's lost his faith in his audience. He sacrifices the reality of the moment so that he can wrap everything up. Why not simply trust that we would take the convergence of all of these particular details (a case of asthma, a strange habit involving half-drunk glasses of water, someone's former batting glory) as a sign in and of itself? Why add the labored level of having someone spell it out and add it up? Why not let Mel see the miracle on his own instead of being led to it and practically shoved into it face first? I'm sure that there will be people who leap to the ending's defense, furious at me despite the fact that I'm recommending the film. I'm sure they will have their rationale for why the ending is exactly right, every frame perfect and inviolable. And that's fine. I'm certainly not calling you stupid if you enjoy it. Like I said... the idea of it is just fine. I may have a problem with the execution, but not with the ambition.