M Night Shyamalan is the Harry Houdini of modern-day filmmakers. He has consistently proved himself a master of audience misdirection - and we're not just talking twists. Shyamalan has developed a knack, or rather an obsession, for delivering movies which are significantly different from their promotional pitch. The Sixth Sense was billed as a psychological thriller; it was actually a ghost love story (well, sort of). Unbreakable, we thought, would be a spooky mystery; it was, oddly enough, a superhero movie (well, sort of). As for Signs... Now that'd be telling, wouldn't it?
Of course, by not telling, we're massively restricted in what we can say about Night's latest. Assuming you manage to avoid all the usual plot-wrecking reviewers and internet blabs, we can guarantee that you will be surprised by the direction Signs takes. Whether or not you think it works is another matter entirely, and a few post-viewing mental rewinds should uncover a scattering of plot holes, but as an in-the-moment thrill-trip, Signs turns out to be a primally petrifying experience.
Mel Gibson is Graham Hess, a corn farmer who lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two kids - the pensive, sensitive Morgan (You Can Count On Me's Rory Culkin) and the five-going-on-50-year-old Bo (Abigail Breslin). But this ain't exactly a happy-go-lucky family. Graham is a former Episcopalian minister who's recently lost his faith and, with it, much of his ability to connect with those closest to him. Yet even his heavy-duty apathy is shaken by a series of bizarre events.
Why is Bo refusing to finish glasses of water, claiming they taste "contaminated"? Why are his dogs going crazy, yelping maniacally at the darkness and turning on their masters? And, most importantly, who's responsible for those massive, elaborate crop circles which have started appearing on his property? Is it little green men, as Morgan rather obsessively insists? Or merely his neighbours' troublesome offspring? As a storyteller, Shyamalan is less concerned with the answers themselves than he is with the answering process, and how that process affects his characters. The result is a very intimate and emotionally astute portrayal of a family under threat, and how that threat brings them closer, with Shyamalan keeping his cast appropriately reined in.
Gibson, by his own admission, was banned from employing any of his usual fallback tics, which means he's comfortably convincing as the detached and distanced father figure who has to overcome his own towering psychological obstacles before he can effectively help the rest of his family.
Phoenix, meanwhile, is allowed to impress with his great range and subtlety, pinpointing his role as the unwilling uncle who, despite his self-confidence problems, finds himself having to play a pivotal role in an intense family drama. And the kids? Shyamalan made Haley Joel Osment a child star in The Sixth Sense and drew a sharp performance out of Gladiator's Spencer Treat Clark for Unbreakable, so we should hardly be surprised to find that both Culkin and Breslin are impressively naturalistic.
It's Shyamalan's handling of the threat, however, which really sneaks under your skin. The action is limited mainly to the Hess farmhouse and the perspective to that of the Hess family. We see what they see, or think they see. We hear what they hear, or think they hear. And our fear builds just as their fear builds. Torch goes out? The screen goes black. Door slammed shut? We only see what's on our side of it. Shyamalan uses peripheral half-glimpses and millisecond- long flashes to convey the shocks, while the slow-chill, gut-churning terror of the Hess clan's situation is achieved through the expert use of sound. Scratchings, mutterings, distant thumps and clatters, anxious gaspings for breath... The aural effects alone will have you hyperventilating. This mastery of mood makes the story's plot flaws, and even its arguably hokey climax, forgivable.
Superior to Unbreakable, and only slightly inferior to The Sixth Sense, Signs is guaranteed to keep your seat cold. Why? Because you'll spend the entire movie right on the edge of it.