Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 1, 2002
Starring Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, and Abigail Breslin. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13.
The End of the World

M. Night Shyamalan gets back to his horror rootsby following Signs.


In the first scene of Signs, Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) awakens with a start, and then hears the far-off sound of screaming children and barking dogs. From the movieís beginning, the air is thick with metaphysical dread, and you can sense something indefinable thatís very wrong with the universe. M. Night Shyamalan is awfully good at scaring the holy bejesus out of you, and though he moved away from that in his last movie, Unbreakable, heís back to it in a big way in his latest film.

Graham is a former Episcopalian minister who left the church after his wifeís death in an accident caused him to lose faith in God. His brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) has moved in with him to help take care of Grahamís young children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). After his rude awakening at the movieís beginning, Graham goes out into the fields at his farm in Bucks County, Pa. ó 45 miles from Shyamalanís hometown of Philadelphia, where his previous movies took place ó and finds swaths of neatly flattened crops forming a large, intricate, circular pattern visible from the sky. With similar circles being reported all over the world, more disturbing things start happening around Grahamís home. The Hessesí family dog turns viciously on the children, with terrible results. Morgan digs a baby monitor out of storage, and it starts picking up strange indecipherable signals.

These disruptions in the cosmic order co-exist with a fair amount of deadpan comedy. Of Shyamalanís three well-known films, this is easily the funniest, full of eccentric characters like a young drugstore clerk who keeps an exact account of her use of profanity so she can confess it to Graham, and an overly intense military recruiter whoís sure the crop circles are signs of an alien invasion. Everyone has half-baked theories about whatís going on, and none of them are entirely wrong. Eventually, the comic relief gives way to an apocalypse, but one seen from the distant vantage point of tv news reports that filter into the Hessesí isolated farm. Death is much closer at hand, though, because a mysterious intruder is lurking around their homestead, signaling its presence and then vanishing into the crops surrounding the house. Itís kind of like E.T., only unfriendly.

The movie tries to layer religious inquiry on top of its scares, but Shyamalanís philosophy isnít nearly as substantive as his cinematic style, sadly. Midway through the film, Graham posits that people of faith believe in miracles, while skeptics believe everything is predetermined. The movieís ending reconciles those positions, but it does that so neatly that it makes the entire film feel rigged. Thatís not all that goes wrong with the final sequence. Thatís when the thing thatís been stalking the Hesses comes out into the open. Maybe Shyamalan couldnít avoid bringing it out, but inevitably the thing is less scary when we get a good look at it than when itís left to our imagination. The last words of Grahamís wife (Patricia Kalember) are intercut with the climactic struggle in a distracting way. James Newton Howardís music is largely effective ó his rhythmic three-note motif over the opening credits will stick in your head ó but it goes all syrupy at the end, too.

Most of the film, however, is done impeccably. For all his filmmaking talent, Shyamalanís material would turn to mush if he didnít direct his actors so well. His last two films starred Bruce Willis, but the director makes the right call in casting the more demonstrative Gibson. The starís eyes, pooling with grief and pain, are ideal for reflecting Grahamís religious crisis. Heís especially good when Graham curses God under his breath while cradling a sick Morgan in his arms. Joaquin Phoenix is solid rather than dazzling in support, and Culkin and Breslin give strong performances despite their underwritten parts, proving that the director still has a great touch with child actors.

Horror films are often thought of as directorsí movies, but Shyamalan emphasizes the actors with his use of reaction shots, holding the camera for several seconds on someone as he sees something before the director lets us see whatís being looked at. Even so, itís hard not to notice Shyamalanís deceptively simple visual style, favoring long takes and eschewing jump cuts or objects leaping into the frame. He builds suspense slowly and mercilessly, most notably when Graham encounters the thing, trapped behind a barricaded door in another manís house and again in a lengthy sequence where the family members cower in their houseís entrance hall, and then the basement, as the thing comes for them. Cinematographer Tak Fujimoto takes advantage of the farm settingís poor light, where thereís plenty of shadows to hide in. The movie works on our ears, too ó the sound of the wind rustling the crops is as deeply ominous as the clicking noise that accompanies the intruderís visitations. As a writer and certainly as a thinker, M. Night Shyamalan has room to improve, but as a maker of scary movies, this superb stylist can create stuff to harrow you with fear and wonder.

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