VOD film review: Signs
James R | On 27, Jul 2021
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
“Do you think it could be the end of the world?” “Yes.” “How can you say that?” “That wasn’t the answer you wanted?” That’s Graham and his brother, Merrill, discussing the events of the film Signs, M Night Shyamalan’s film about an alien invasion and a family’s response. It’s the most explicit that the Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense director has been about his approach to life and filmmaking – he’s a storyteller who weaves yarns about the extraordinary, and more importantly about being willing to accept and believe in the extraordinary.
That theme’s run throughout his career to date, whether musing on the boundaries between human and superhuman abilities or exploring the way that a community can collectively choose to believe in something unusual. It’s what makes him a cousin of Spielberg rather than a successor to Hitchcock; his movies aren’t about twist endings but about revelations and what people choose to do after experiencing them. As a sci-fi thriller, Signs is a bit ropey but as an explicit meditation on faith and belief, it’s bold in its thoughtful sincerity.
Graham lives on a farm with Merrill and his two kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). It’s a house living under a cloud of unresolved problems. Morgan has asthma and Bo becomes preoccupied with the quality of their home’s drinking water. Merrill, meanwhile, is attempting to find a direction and purpose after a potential baseball career that fizzled out and Graham is recovering from the loss of his wife six months earlier.
Crucially, we discover during the first act that Graham is a former priest, but that the reverend put down his dog collar when he wife passed away. The town, however, still sees him as a father figure, and people lean on him for support and comfort, even though he doesn’t feel able to give it. That limbo he’s in is given a sudden jolt when crop circles begin to appear on his farm, and he finds himself literally searching for answers in the dark, running through the long-eared fields with a torch. It might not be subtle, but it’s chillingly effective, with Shyamalan’s use of shadow and light – coupled with rustling sound design and James Newton Howard’s Bernard Herrmann-esque score – ratcheting up the tension to nail-biting heights.
In long-standing monster movie tradition, Shyamalan keeps his creatures off-screen for as long as possible, with a brief glimpse of a maybe-ET in someone’s home video footage knowingly leaning into dubious hoax territory – the fact that Merrill, Morgan and Bo soon end up wearing tin foil hats and hiding in the cupboard under the stairs only adds to the nudge-wink musing on how open to believing in some ideas people can be.
Joaquin Phoenix is wonderfully vulnerable as the brother who can swing a bat when needed but not much else, and Morgan and Bo capture the fear and uncertainty of a potential world-ending event and the feeling and trust and security that a family can provide. But this is Mel Gibson’s film and, while the actor now conjures up a lot of unpleasant associations, his raw screen presence chimes in with Shyamalan’s sensibilities, helping to sell a lot of moments in the final act as less a series of pivots and more a sequence of hinges aligning, as a semblance of meaning and purpose fall into place.
It’s a film less about otherworldly omens and more about signs of providence, about hope in the face of catastrophe and the search for design amid chaos and doubt. Rewatching in 2021, it’s a timely and moving piece that has its sights set higher than its surface flourishes would suggest – even a standout sequence involving a kitchen door is about trying to see answers from an unlikely angle. While it’s tempting to focus on the geographical and biological improbabilities of it all – this is a story very much in the vein of The War of the Worlds – Signs is at its strongest when its genre threats are locked outside, and two brothers are sitting on a sofa talking. “What kind of person are you?” asks Graham. “Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”