★★★★ / ★★★★
Here is a film with aliens in it, but they prove secondary to the story being told. Remove overt images of these extraterrestrials and notice how the drama remains highly potent. This is because M. Night Shyamalan’s masterful sci-fi horror-thriller “Signs” is actually about something. This is not the kind of movie in which otherworldly creatures visit our planet and humanity must wage war against them. Not one military tank or jet is shown, we hear not one rousing speech, not even a bullet is shot. The goal is to tell a personal story of a reverend who lost his faith six months ago following his wife’s death due to a tragic, senseless accident.
Shyamalan’s talent as a filmmaker and confidence as a storyteller is on full display here. He is fully aware that most viewers would likely be invested in the plot—at least initially—precisely because it involves extraterrestrials and so the work is equipped with curious scenes involving crop circles, baby monitors picking up bizarre trilling, and news broadcasts of what’s going on out in the world. But to tell an effective story, and for the viewers to be invested throughout, Shyamalan is also aware that it must be grounded in reality. Despite the fact that former reverend Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) was a man of religion, the material takes the time to discern between religion and faith often in subtle ways. And so by rooting the story in one man’s faith, or lack thereof, the subject commands universal appeal. Ultimately, it is a human story, specifically a story of loss, not an alien story or a religious story.
It terrorizes the viewers not with cheap jump scares but with increasing unease. When tension is no longer tolerable and something is finally is shown, it is precisely what we expect. A few examples: Graham and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) chasing off intruders around their farmhouse in the middle of the night, Graham going off on his own amongst the corn field with nothing but a flashlight, and Graham’s day time close encounter in front of a pantry door. Confirming our fears is itself the horror. It does not aim to blindside us, or trick us, or confuse us. It simply shows what we already suspect or know. Filmmakers who possess thorough understanding of what makes suspense-thrillers work employ this technique with confidence, like Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven. Get a beat even slightly wrong and the work is reduced to a sham. Pay attention to the excellent sound design—how it is used… and not used.
Even flashbacks are executed ever so carefully. It is the night when Father Graham was summoned to the scene of the accident so he could have a chance to speak to his wife (Patricia Kalember) for the last time. Although the flashback is broken into three segments, it is also a source of dramatic suspense. We already know that the wife would die given the central plot. But we do not know the following: the exact circumstances of Colleen’s death, who was responsible, and the final words between man and wife. Put these three segments together and the total length is a mere three to five minutes. However, there is such a wealth of information, one can argue it is actually necessary to divide this scene so viewers are given time to process. The pieces are provided during the right points in the story—one of them, daringly, shows up during the climax.
The movie is also terrifically funny at times. The approach is to allow a breath of humor amidst the mysterious goings-on so that we grow comfortable with the Hess family (Gibson, Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin). Through their sarcasm, dry wit, and self-deprecation, we come to understand how they think, how they perceive the world around them, how they solve problems. Conversely, we come to understand what hurts them most. And so when the observant and precise screenplay sets up confrontations among them, we feel the hurt they feel.