Watching Signs is like standing next to a friend who is peeking though a knot in a wooden fence. He sees something, something creepy, crawling this way, or at least he thinks he sees something. But you'll never be sure what he sees until you peek through that hole yourself. Frustrating?
That may happen in the hands of a bad storyteller, but not when that friend looking through the hole is director M. Night Shyamalan, the 32-year old boy wonder behind two ethereal modern classics, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. He stands almost alone in Hollywood as a filmmaker who instinctively understands what you know already: What we can't see is precisely the thing that sends a chill up our spine.
Without giving anything away - I swear, this review is spoiler-free - consider a scene late in the film: Mel Gibson and his family are in the basement of their farmhouse. You see, one day he noticed crop circles in his corn. Life got strange after that: TV news began broadcasting images of crop circles across the globe, and then lights in the sky. And now Mel is crouching in the darkness, listening to taps and scrapes, when he and his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), glance off camera.
Mel swings in its direction and ... drops the flashlight. That's when Shyamalan makes an extraordinary decision. His camera stays on the ground with the flashlight, pointed away from the action, leaving only you and your imagination. To some extent the whole movie is like this, an elaborate exercise in telling a story without explaining what's going on or showing evidence that something is actually happening. Shyamalan's confidence in his talent, and our eagerness to be confused until things are clear, sells the ploy.
Gibson helps too. He seems off through the entire film. He plays Graham Hess with a great deal of both warmth and angst.
Graham is an Episcopalian priest who lost his faith when his wife died in a car accident. We first see him waking out of a sleep, startled at something, or maybe just dreaming.
He lives with his two children and Merrill. The kids never stay out of sight for long. Graham has a tendency to panic. Then one day his daughter decides she doesn't want to drink tap water. The family dog turns uncharacteristically vicious. An old baby monitor starts picking up strange signals.
What's going on here?
As with Shyamalan's last two films, at the center is a mystery with a limited number of explanations. The solution is simple and hard to see.
Shyamalan takes to heart an old saying: God is in the details. Every one is important in his movies, and yet none feel important. He's a master of misdirection, of mysteries sitting in plain sight, waiting for their blurred clues to come into focus, like an image in one of those Magic Eye novelty books.
We feel something like detectives while watching his movies, expected to bring along our knowledge of how movie thrillers usually work. That's when Shyamalan links his details in unexpected ways.
Speaking of novelty, Shyamalan's talent could be called a gimmick. This is his third film in a row that turns on a twist - the film is about crop circles and not about crop circles - and he's such a natural-born filmmaker that his technique is starting to look like showing off. Remember Rubik's Cube? How you could only do one side, but there was always someone who could fit those dozens of disparate pieces together in a flash and make it look like the solution was obvious?
That's Shyamalan, and you want to pat him on the head at times and assure him he's clever. At least his missteps are ones of ambition. Newsweek is calling him the next Spielberg. Perhaps.
Or maybe down the road he could be the next Hitchcock. Before Signs even starts you're thinking Hitch. The shrieking strings under the opening credits is a direct lift from Bernard Herrmann's classic Hitchcock scores. (Think the violins in Psycho.) Shyamalan sacrifices characters to technique: Gibson is a joker in a darkly funny card trick. He shows us crop circles, then later, in a passing shot, he shows us a bird's eye view of residential backyards and their swimming pools, and the shapes take on droll but ominous meanings.
You also lean forward in a Shyamalan film, perched at the end of your seat, expectant. But unlike Hitch, there's a strong spiritual pull at work here; you might even say Signs is about our faith that there's some guiding hand in the universe, that everything happens for a reason and no detail is too insignificant.
I hope I haven't made this sound too airy. Signs is many things. It's a heartfelt family drama, and a smart horror story with a few pulp shocks. But mostly, Signs is one heck of a shiver, the cinematic equivalent of a 3 a.m. stroll through an open field by yourself, with a full moon in the sky, a chill at your neck, and something unseen 10 paces at your back.