Signs is a thriller of the classical school — a bump-in-the-night thriller — with the globally simultaneous unease of the days after September 11 informing every scene, even though the script was completed well before that day. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, who made The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, never met an ominous hush he didn’t like. This 32-year-old already has the rigorous control of a seasoned master of tension; the audience leans forward with pleasure, relieved to be seduced by a movie instead of raped. Shyamalan takes his time, drawing out the exquisite silences, the small trembling portents of terror. He’s often been likened to Steven Spielberg, but for me the more useful comparison is to producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur, who collaborated on some of the finest dread-ridden supernatural horror of the 1940s.
Clearly with encouragement from the director, Mel Gibson holds himself in — way in — as Father Graham Hess, a widower and father of two. Glazed over with grief and existential despair — Graham has left the church and no longer believes there’s a benevolent creator watching out for us — Gibson, I think, permits himself a brief smile exactly twice in 107 minutes; the performance makes Bruce Willis’ elaborate gloom in Unbreakable look pink-faced with glee. Yet it works; Gibson is believably hollow, fed up with the great failed love between him and his god. When strange things start happening around Graham’s Pennsylvania farm, he’s not in much of a position to comfort his kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin), or his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), who lives in a spare house on the land. They want to believe in something; he believes in nothing.
A tauntingly perfect pattern in the crops, dogs barking, the stalks of wheat rustling — Shyamalan lays each hint of the uncanny in place. This director likes to take pulpy premises and make them small-scale and personal; here, it’s as if he took the brief scene at the beginning of many alien-invasion movies — the rural family discovering possible evidence of intruders, soon forgotten when the main plot of Earth Vs. Them kicks in — and stayed inside that scene for the whole movie. Except for a few flashbacks to a past trauma, and a scene where the family goes into town for pizza, Signs more or less locks itself behind the doors of the Hess farmhouse; it has some of the claustrophobic, they’re-out-there paranoia of Night of the Living Dead and Assault on Precinct 13.
Some may feel that Shyamalan stumbles in the home stretch, both by drawing back the curtain on the unknown (a bit like when the studio demanded a shot of a leopard in Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People) and by bringing several elements — a baseball bat, the little girl Bo’s half-finished glasses of water — together with too neat a click. There’s still a little too much voila! showmanship in Shyamalan; the final ten minutes or so probably weren’t necessary. But, God, is he ever skilled at set-up. And by staying with this small family — and with Graham’s crisis of faith, imported from other movies (more recentlyFrom Dusk Till Dawn) though it is — Shyamalan has once again made a drama that happens to have supernatural dapplings.
Signs has flaws — potentially fatal structural flaws — but they don’t matter to me. What matter are the moments, which snowball into the convincing heft of emotion. I won’t soon forget the manic-depressive dinner, which Graham senses may be the family’s last; the scene both evokes and equals the mashed-potatoes bit in Spielberg’s Close Encounters (Gibson sets a new standard for tormented eating; the moment is both funny and heartbreaking). The movie is about Graham’s telling each of his children how they were born — Bo came out calm and happy, Morgan came out with a bloody struggle. It’s about Joaquin Phoenix’s tone as he relates an embarrassing adolescent story about the first girl he almost kissed. It’s about the look on Gibson’s face when Graham sees his child in the grasp of certain death. Unlike Shyamalan’s previous two big-twist movies, Signs goes out not with a bang, but with a whisper.