The belief that nothing is random, that every detail in the universe signifies something beyond itself is a symptom of paranoia, or religiosity. It is also a precondition for viewing movies intelligently. Filmmakers ask that we be attentive, that we notice and link details that outside a theater we simply ignore. If a tree falls in a forest, few people listen. When it falls in a film, it is some kind of sign.
From the opening scene of Signs, when Graham Hess (Gibson), a lapsed Episcopal priest, leaps out of bed in response to strange sounds outside among the corn, the audience is put on notice; stay alert for something bizarre. Indeed, crop circles have been carved in Hess' cornfield, in rustic Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Is it just a local prank, or does it have anything to do with dozens of other crop circles suddenly discovered elsewhere in the world? Is there any connection to the unidentified lights that have been flickering above major cities? There are two kinds of people according to Hess: One sees providence everywhere; for the other, accident is all. Since the death of his wife in a road wreck six months ago, Hess has taken off his clerical collar and embraced randomness. At dinner with his preternaturally poised young children, Morgan (Culkin) and Bo (Breslin), he refuses to pray. When his younger brother, Merrill (Phoenix), who has been sharing their house since the death of the children's mother, has intimations of divinity, Hess is curt: "There is no one watching out for us, Merrill," he insists. "We are all on our own."
He is mistaken. All the signs in Signs point to an invasion of our planet by malevolent creatures. The entire population of human beings is at risk, but the film concentrates on only four of them, isolated in a farmhouse 45 miles from Philadelphia. The horror is heightened by the usual movie machinery of ominous camera angles and ambiguous shadows. But Signs stands out for its silence, a muted soundtrack that forces its audience to listen for faint aural cues.
Though writer-director M. Night Shyamalan signed on to this project as early as April 2001, viewers alert to the zeitgeist will surely see some link between his film's release and the aftermath of 9/11, especially since a crucial encounter with hostile forces is said to have occurred in the Middle East. Though TV broadcasts inform the Hesses that other parts of the world are also affected, Signs is an American story, of unprovoked, unwarranted assault against the homeland and family by dark, unintelligible aliens. In its unremitting focus on Graham Hess, his children, and his brother, the film makes drama out of xenophobia; it is a cinematic equivalent of the national trauma induced by the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. All signs induce mistrust of anyone outside the tribe, and we are expected to cheer when Merrill, once a minor league slugger, takes on the enemy with the most American of weapons: a baseball bat. The film signs on to Bush's foreign policy — that unilateralism is the most appropriate response to any external challenge.
All the supernatural balderdash of UFOs and ETs is a bit excessive for what this film is really about — one shaken clergyman's crisis of faith. How can ambivalent Graham Hess (whose first name echoes America's most famous preacher and whose surname suggests Moses Hess, the man who converted Friedrich Engels to godless socialism) reconcile the senseless death of his wife with the existence of the Christian deity? It is surely not an insignificant detail that the man responsible for killing Colleen Hess, falling asleep at the wheel while she is out for an innocent walk, is the only non-white seen in the county. Ray Reddy, a veterinarian, is Asian, and he happens to be played by Shyamalan himself.
Though he grew up in Pennsylvania and attended an exclusive Episcopal school, Shyamalan was born in Pondicherry and, reportedly, raised in a non-Christian religion. In his film, the first incidents of crop circles are reported in the director's native India. What Signs is really about — even more than the story of how Graham Hess learns to overcome faith-shaking loss and don ecclesiastical garb again — is immigrant Shyamalan's embrace of Billy Graham's America. His film is a work of Christian apologetics, which in itself is no sin. However, Shyamalan shrinks from presenting a fair and robust battle for the soul. Vishnu is vanquished with a Louisville slugger. In the America he celebrates, by wallowing in its corn, you just gotta believe.
"Billy Graham meets E.T."
Writ. & dir. M. Night Shyamalan; feat. Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin, Cherry Jones, M. Night Shyamalan (PG-13)