“Signs” is an M. Night Shymalan film on reverse. “The Sixth Sense”, and to a lesser degree “Unbreakable” were films with decent but albeit slow opening acts which are then followed by a final 10-15 minutes which twists everything around and made you forget the problems with the early parts of said films. Now comes this which is the most polished and well paced of his films – its the opposite though, the first 100 minutes or so are fantastically dark and twisted but the finale spells out and unravels things to such a degree you feel your being both let down and spoken down too.
Its a shame really considering how effectively creepy this ‘War of the Worlds’ on a small scale story this is. Aside from quite a bit of action on the TV sets in the household, we never leave the backwater rural Bucks County area of Pennsylvania and the easy majority (at least 75-80%) of the film takes place around the house and cornfields of Gibson and his family. The thing is that what makes this work – this isn’t an FX fest where you see various people fighting off giant ships, this is the story of one family in a quiet ‘off the beaten path’ location and how they deal with the crisis – and to a surprising degree almost everything about it rings true from the excited kids to the disbelieving older brother, and so on.
I must admit in recent years I’ve gone off Gibson but this pulled me right back in whilst Joaquin Phoenix gives solid support. The supporting cast proves equally charming from Cherry Jones as the no-nonsense sherrif to Ted Sutton as an over the top military recruiter. There’s a subplot of Gibson involving him recovering his sense of faith after losing it when a terrible accident occured six months previous, and while this story has its moments it never really pulls off what it wants to achieve. This is because throughout the picture we’re given hints as to what happened – its an effective character builder, but when we eventually do see what happened – its intercut with present day action and events in a way that rings falsely – and stands out all the more after what up till that point has been one of the most effective mood builders of the year. Indeed, one surprisingly bad tone to all of this is the sloppily inserted sentimental pieces. There are times when Gibson is going on and on to his little kids about how they looked when they were born, normally a cute prospect but considering the horrifying events going on in the background you have to wonder what the hell he’s thinking.
That doesn’t detract though from the many effective jumps spread throughout the picture. Shyamalan turns up the full Hitchcock suspense tone throughout and rarely lets it slip except for the somewhat cheesy climax. Whether its freaky silhouettes, a brief TV video transmission, or the very effective use of surround sound which makes the pitter patter of feet and rustling of corn a shiver inducing effort – they’re what makes this easily the most ‘jump in your seat’ inducing film of the year so far and easily more ‘creepy’ than Shymalan’s previous films. The suspense gradually builds and builds yet never goes too over the top or overblown and stays in this limited range. James Newton Howard delivers a very Danny Elfman-esque score too which adds to the mood and knows its place well (never over-dominating).
A story like this you’d expect the tone to be slow, and indeed when the movie switches from ‘scare mode’ to character development scenes it does begin to lose energy, but the thing is despite the many quiet moments there’s not a hint of wasted dialogue or scenes. Each minute in the film feels necessary to the tale. This is because one of the great things Shymalan does is that he allows the character development to unfold naturally and at an easy pace – you start off wondering about how this family ended up here and by the end each has had time to develop a backstory and their own traits. Humour is added into the mix in clever and light bursts to ease the tension which helps a lot.
In some ways this is a frustrating movie because so much of it is so right on the money that when it fumbles the ball in its last act, your slapping your forehead and going “Doh!” at what happens. This is a very hard story to end effectively and so Shyamalan opts to not just spell things out but highlight many elements and link in certain others when a much more ambiguous and uncertain tone would’ve been far more effective (the same problem with “Minority Report” earlier this year) so the big climax feels out of place. Despite the ending though, this is one of the most solid films of the Summer and definitely worth seeing in a theatre with a crowd.