Signs (2002)

(c) Touchstone Pictures

Signs is M. Night Shyamalan’s fifth feature film, but it may as well be his third.  The Sixth Sense marked a turning point in his career, and for a while, every follow-up tried to play the same cards.

By the time Signs landed, audiences knew what to expect—a fractured family dealing with painful struggles set against the backdrop of something extraordinary—and that’s just what they got.  But while it plays some very familiar motifs, it does try to strike a different tune.  The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable spent a lot of their time peering into the heart of human darkness.  Signs spends it’s time examining faith in the midst of loss and toys around with free will and determinism.  It riffs on Hitchcock’s playfulness instead of his noir, adding ample amounts of fun to the film’s wrenching suspense.

I assume you know the plot, and if you’re taking the time to read this now, you’re likely in on the surprise that comes at the end.  We could waste time haggling over Shyamalan’s treatment of the extraordinary, or how this film marks the place where his talents began to decline.  Maybe we’ll have that conversation someday.  For now, let me posit and defend that, at this point in his career, Shyamalan still possessed a canny ability to endow his characters with subtlety and complexity, and that those particular powers are their peak here.  

The film belongs to Graham Hess (Mel Gibson).  His emotional arc carries most of the story’s weight, and when we first meet him six months after his wife’s tragic death, he’s still in pieces and doing his best to hold himself together.  He’s resigned from the church and refuses to pray.  Instead of calling out to God, he’s decided to ignore Him.  The rest of his family, meanwhile, is starting to move on.  It’s never made explicit, and it’s a credit to Shyamalan’s writing that it plays as well as it does.

Graham’s younger brother Merrill has moved into the house to help with the kids.  He’s fully committed to to the effort, but it’s clear he would eventually like to get on with the rest of his life.  When the family goes into town, Merrill visits the army recruiter’s office.  No one ever talks about enlisting.  Instead, everything in the scene services Merrill’s need for a back story—he’s a former minor league ballplayer with five (count ’em) home run records with a compulsive need to swing at every pitch.  But the scene is just as explicit it what it shows us and doesn’t tell us.  Merrill has abilities that extend beyond his “stimulating” employment at the gas station, and he’s ready to ply them.

While Merrill’s life has taken more of a detour (and that’s not being very kind), Morgan, Graham’s son, has had a more challenging struggle.

After losing his mom, Morgan has had to step up as an adult in some ways while his father deals with his own pain.  Early in the film, we find Morgan hovering over the grill, afraid that dad’s going to burn the chicken (again).  Moments later he has to face down his dog when it suddenly tries to kill his sister.  He does what he has to do, and he does it with admirable courage.  Later, when Graham and Merrill tell Officer Paski about the strange visit they received the night before, Morgan’s seated at the table, right alongside the grownups.

But he also has a child’s fascination with Paski’s walkie-talkie, enough to take an old baby monitor as a substitute to fuel his imagination.  He wants to be a kid again.  The arrival of the visitors fires his imagination at the same time as it fires his need for a protector.  He’s the vulnerable one now,  a feeling only compounded by Bo’s bad feeling that he’s about to face some serious trouble.  He’s in danger, there’s nothing he can do about it, and he doesn’t have any confidence in his father to protect him.

Shyamalan handles both minor arcs well, and though it looks like he fumbles a bit in tying them up, I don’t think he does. He ties them up in the same quiet way he’s developed them throughout the story.  Morgan’s arc receives the most closure as the film winds down—Graham’s faith is restored as Morgan is saved by a protector more capable than his father.   When Graham steps out of his room at the end, we can hear the children laughing and playing.  Morgan’s a kid again.

And Merrill?  He’s nowhere to be found, and that’s exactly as it should be.  He’s out of his brother’s house, living his own life.

I maintain that Shyamalan’s considerable gifts were still firing on all cylinders when he made Signs.  His handling of Morgan and Merrill add an impressive layer of emotion to a story chock full of things to enjoy.  I haven’t even mentioned Gibson’s performance or James Newton Howard’s bombastic Bernard Herrman/ Marius Constant homage.  Signs could have worn an old hat, but it doesn’t.  It holds up so well because it relies on characters with real struggles, which makes them real to you and me.  And if their struggles are real, then maybe their victory could be too.

Mel Gibson (Graham Hess)
Joaquin Phoenix (Merrill Hess)
Rory Culkin (Morgan Hess)
Abigail Breslin (Bo Hess)
Cherry Jones (Officer Paski)
M. Night Shymalan (Ray Reddy)

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

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