Signs

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The ViewHamilton Review

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Review byMatthew Turner9/10/2002

Four out of Five Stars
Running Time: 106 mins

Director M. Night Shyamalan’s follow-up to Unbreakable and The Sixth Sense – well-acted and superbly atmospheric with a black comic streak, but let down in the final reel.

After the phenomenal success of The Sixth Sense, great things were expected from writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s second film. Then, when Unbreakable turned out to be, to put it charitably, something of a disappointment, critics and audiences alike put that down to ‘Difficult Second Film Syndrome’ and instead pinned their hopes on his third film.

Now that it’s finally arrived, however, Signs is unlikely to garner ‘instant classic’ status, largely thanks to a flawed final reel. That said, it’s still an immensely enjoyable film, provided you don’t think about it too much once it’s all over.

Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a recently widowed ex-preacher who lives with his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and two children (Rory Culkin, from You Can Count On Me, and newcomer Abigail Breslin) on a farm in Pennsylvania.

Senseless Death

The senseless death, in a horrific car crash, of Hess’ wife has caused him to lose his faith and give up his position as a minister, something that the local town still resents him for. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, he also has to deal with the sudden appearance of a 500-foot crop circle on his property. Is it a prank? The first sign of extra-terrestrial life? Or something altogether more sinister?

One thing Shyamalan excels at is creating atmosphere. From the superb opening credits (recalling the work of Saul Bass) and assisted by a terrific score from James Newton Howard, Shyamalan creates an extremely tense and creepy atmosphere where the audience, along with the characters, are never really sure what’s going to happen next. He also has a good understanding of the importance of space and objects, managing to crank up the tension by concentrating on the seemingly ordinary (e.g. a glass of water).

Shyamalan is also known for turning genres on their heads (e.g. Unbreakable suddenly becoming a superhero movie) and, in fact, this is a major selling-point of the film (or at least the first three quarters of it) – you can guarantee that whatever you were expecting, you will definitely be surprised at the direction it takes.

The only problem is that it can’t sustain this level of brilliance through to the ending, which descends into a combination of sentimentality and jaw-dropping idiocy (though certain audience members will undoubtedly be kinder towards it than others).

Unusually Restrained

The acting is flawless. Gibson is unusually restrained (much as Bruce Willis was for The Sixth Sense) and, as a result, gives perhaps his best performance for some time. Even so, he’s effortlessly out-acted by Joaquin Phoenix, who is becoming more and more interesting as an actor with every film he makes.

After the performances of Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense and Spencer Treat Clark in Unbreakable, it’s not surprising that Shyamalan again gets great performances from his child actors, with both Culkin and Breslin delivering assured, mature performances – Breslin’s scenes with her various glasses of water are among the film’s more memorable moments.

In fact, the only performance that doesn’t work is that of Shyamalan himself, who, rather than take a cameo as in his previous films, has given himself a relatively important part that he doesn’t have the acting ability to pull off. This is unfortunate, as it smacks worryingly of Tarantino Syndrome and one can only hope someone has A Quiet Word with him before his next film.

Black Comedy?

For the most part, the script is extremely well written, allowing each character to shine and developing some interesting ideas. It is also, frequently, very funny – there are moments where you’re convinced the entire film is actually a jet-black comedy, such as in the scene where Gibson comes home to find the kids and Joaquin with tin-foil on their heads and the ensuing ‘vote’ about what to do next.

Ultimately, Signs is extremely enjoyable for three quarters of the film, but loses its way in the final reel. That said, there’s a lot to enjoy along the way and the ending is destined to be tolerated and swiftly glossed over by some (it’s consistent within the film, but doesn’t stand up to much analysis) and hated with a passion by others. It’s worth seeing to make your own mind up on, though. Let’s just hope his next film is even better. Recommended.

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Content updated: 23/10/2017 08:10

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