This is one time when giving away too much of the story will ruin the experience--and much like M. Night Shyamalan's other two films you do not want that to happen. Suffice to say the writer/director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable is maturing into an extremely talented storyteller. The film sets up enough creepy moments to keep you awake at night while at the same time is perhaps the funniest script Shyamalan has ever written (besides maybe Stuart Little). You finally get to laugh in a Shyamalan film to break the tension. The story focuses on one family--Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two young children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin)--and the tragedy that has fallen over them. When the real-life but nonetheless strange phenomenon known as crop circles (which some believe indicate extraterrestrial activity) appears in Graham's cornfields he handles it as any normal person would. He thinks it's a prank of some kind. Little by little however the world as Graham and his family knows it starts to fall apart. Taking the universal idea of the possibility of life on other planets but exploring it only within the microcosm of this one rural family is a brilliant ploy. And throughout the film there is one underlying theme--faith. Faith in family faith in mankind and faith in the greater powers displaying that the characters either have it or they don't. If they don't have it Signs shows how they can get it back.
Shyamalan's usual lead guy Bruce Willis is replaced this time around by Mel Gibson. When hearing of this casting choice some fans of Shyamalan's may have wondered if Gibson could delve into that quiet persona Willis managed to brilliantly personify in Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Yet after watching the first few moments of Signs you understand perfectly why Gibson was cast. Gibson's Graham is definitely quiet and subdued--in fact emotionally wounded--but he embodies a strength needed for the character. In other words Gibson just looks like a man who has toiled the earth. Phoenix's Merrill is perhaps the most sympathetic character the talented actor has played to date. Merrill's devotion to his brother niece and nephew is unwavering even as he doubts his own place in the world and whether he is truly helping his family heal. And once again Shyamalan gets unbelievably powerful performances from his child actors. Rory Culkin the youngest of the famed Culkin acting brood has the sad-eyed face of his older brothers and the talent to match them. He and little Breslin as Bo are eerily good and fortunately get to be more like kids without the weight of the world on their shoulders as poor Haley Joel Osment had in Sixth Sense. Cherry Jones (Erin Brockovich) also puts in a realistic performance as the local police officer.
As a director Shyamalan has an innate sense about creating an environment even if that environment is usually a strange one. You get the feeling Shyamalan may have been obsessed with The Twilight Zone as a kid. Things are always very still and quiet in a Shyamalan film like the world isn't really a huge bustling place but almost empty save for the few brave souls left to carry on. In Signs the stillness makes particular sense set in the rural area of Bucks County Pa. rather than in the city life of Sixth Sense or Unbreakable. Shyamalan takes his time with his shots and never wastes a single one from the aerial shots to the tight close-ups to the scenes in darkness filled only with the glow from a flashlight. OK maybe he used that shot before ("I see dead people") but gosh darn it it works. And then there are the cornfields. Why do weird creepy things always happen in cornfields? Perhaps because the plants grow so high and you can't see anything once you are in the thick of them. Or maybe because filmmakers love to film cornfields with their colors and contrasts. Whether the moment be dramatic or terrifying Shyamalan expertly uses everything at his disposal to make it work.