Director M. Night Shyamalan is a very young man who understands a very old lesson (one most of his peers have forgotten): it's what you don't see that makes a scary movie scary. But then one of the things that makes "Signs" such a refreshing summer movie is that it goes against almost all the grains of contemporary Hollywood razzle-dazzle filmmaking--as did "The Sixth Sense." Shyamalan starts with characters, and builds from the ground up. He isn't afraid of long scenes with lots of talk and little cutting. Special effects? Sparse, at best. Hipster irony? Banned. Most pop filmmaking today resembles fireworks displays: bright, random blasts of color, which fade from the memory as soon as you've said "wow." "Signs," like "The Sixth Sense" and even the misconceived but artfully directed "Unbreakable," forces you to lean forward, in anticipation and dread, and absorb. And like all things you stare at intently, his unsettling movies hang around in your head long after they're over.
The premise of "Signs" is simplicity itself. On a Pennsylvania farm, a family discovers mysterious crop signs carved out of their cornfields. Is it a hoax or... the prelude to an extraterrestrial invasion? Widower Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), an Episcopalian minister who has lost his faith after the agonizing death of his wife, tries to keep his family calm in the face of mighty strange occurrences. Spooked, the family dog viciously tries to attack his 6-year-old daughter, Bo (Abby Breslin). His asthmatic son, Morgan (Rory Culkin), starts picking up odd signals on the baby monitor. Graham's brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), chases in circles after a man who seems to vanish into thin air. With the exception of a local cop, beautifully played by Cherry Jones, and the town veterinarian, played by the director, this is almost the entire cast of this minimalist movie, which is able to conjure up a world-threatening menace while barely leaving the confines of the family farm. By keeping it simple, Shyamalan makes every detail matter, and only at the end of the film will you realize why every detail matters.
Shyamalan has tricks up his sleeve, but he's not after the kind of twist ending that turned "The Sixth Sense" on its head. (His biggest danger as a filmmaker is that he has to compete with his own reputation as a sleight-of-hand artist.) He's after bigger thematic game here: his family thriller is intended as an exploration of faith. Are our lives guided by random accidents, or is there a pattern, a deeper plan, to it all?
Shyamalan is hardly a profound thinker--"Signs" is too facile for that--but he sure is a generous entertainer. In addition to being a very scary movie, and a surprisingly moving one, "Signs" has a wonderfully droll sense of humor. (When you see the scene with the tinfoil hats, you'll know what I mean.) Both the wit and the emotion are contained in Gibson's heartfelt, delicately comic performance. He hasn't dug this deep in years. He reinvents his body language--stiff, awkward--to reveal a man trying to remain in control of a life that has far exceeded his understanding. Phoenix is equally good as his brother, a goodhearted semi-lox who dreamed of being a baseball star. Shyamalan again shows how good he is with kids--both Culkin and Breslin give terrifically natural, nuanced performances. This family feels like a family.
There are echoes of Spielberg in Shyamalan's notions of Americana and more than a few lessons from Hitchcock (the music under the opening credits is a homage to Bernard Herrmann's Hitchcock scores). But Shyamalan has found a spare, taut style that's all his own. Defiantly old-fashioned, he's come up with something new: horror movies that pull on the heartstring, the tear-jerker terror flick. A neat trick indeed.