SIGNS

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. USA. 2002.


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As I donít relish the experience of shrieking in public places, I had been putting off going to see Signs. Not going was frankly killing me. I am the worldís GEEKIEST Mel Gibson fan. I am the type that would consider the addition of a 6 foot high Mad Max poster a boon to any living roomís decor, and am currently in possession of T-shirts, soundtracks, posters, and a sacred coffee mug all festooned with the manís image. 

When my friends learned that I was too, letís say, nervous to go to Melís latest big screen effort, they would call and express their undying support for my dilemma. ďYou havenít seen it YET? Whatís the matter? Isumms SCARED? Hahahahahahahaha.Ē they say. Or, they attempt to reassure me about the moviesí terror level with reassuring comments like ďItís really not THAT scary. At the show I went to only three people had to have their hearts started again. And Iím sure that row of people that passed out during the cornfield scene are going to be just fine.Ē 

Signs. All Rights Reserved.When I just couldnít stand knowing that there was a movie out there that featured my favourite mischievous Hollywood actor that I hadnít yet seen I went out to the theatre. (Not my usual one though, hoping that if I embarrassed myself too terribly I could always choose not to return to that particular cinema.) I can say without fear of contradiction, that Signs is one of the most frightening films that I have ever seen. (As evidenced by the amount of times I shrieked, and attempted to assist the onscreen characters. Why doesnít that ever work?)

Signs is the story of self-exiled priest Graham Hessí search for the truth. Struggling to put a life together after the accidental death of his wife, Hess wakes up to find a bizarre pattern has been etched into his cornfield. After exploring all the earthly possibilities for this phenomenon, heís forced to look elsewhere for an explanation. 

Mel Gibson (Maverick, Gallipoli) stars as the lost Father. I, like every other person with a pulse, think Gibson, is just drop dead gorgeous. I however, am continually impressed by the fact that this man who could very easily coast through a career based solely on his looks, chooses instead, to take the tougher roles, like this distant parent. In the hands of a less amiable actor, I think Hess would have fallen flat. His character is so expressionless and cold,  but director Shyamalan uses Gibsonís charm to itís full potential,  effectively underscoring that icy layer with a kindness towards his family and friends making the audience root for him. (And, in certain moments, scream helpful directions at him. ďDONíT GO INTO THE KITCHEN YOU CRETIN!!Ē  And so forth. Those of you who are still shuddering from the knife-coming-out-from-under-the-door scene will know what Iím talking about.)  Watching this film, itís very easy to understand why it is that Gibson jumped at the chance to play this part. Unlike so many movies of the alien invasion genre, (here I am thinking mainly of Independence Day) Gibsonís every onscreen moment plays as 100% genuine. The nice thing about Gibsonís Hess is that he makes himself immediately identifiable to the audience. When you take away the fact that aliens may or may not be landing in his cornfield, Hess is just a normal, everyday guy trying to figure out how to carry on after the loss of his wife. Gibsonís reactions to an out of this world situation are real. There arenít any emotionally forced speeches, or moments of over the top acting, (Here, in both cases, I am thinking of Bill Pullman in Independence Day). Gibsonís Hess is EXCEPTIONALLY moving. Itís possibly his best role since Gallipoli

I have never made any bones about the fact that I am not what you would call a Joaquin Phoenix Fan. (Quills, 8mm)  I disliked him in To Die For, I thought Russell Crowe left him waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay behind in Gladiator. Here, whether itís the fact that Gibson tends to elevate the performers he appears with, Shyamalanís scary amount of talent as a director, or a flash of talent beginning to shine through, but I really enjoyed his performance as Grahamís younger brother Merrill. Merrillís character is one of the most interesting in the film, being the brother that gave up a career to move home and help Graham with the children after the death of their mother. I am usually put off by the amount of ego that Phoenix gives the majority of his roles. Here, there is none. All throughout the film you discover little bits about his life (baseball star, all around good athlete) but none of it is trumpeted by Merrill, ending the ďPAY ATTENTION TO MEĒ streak that Phoenix had been pumping into his characters. Thereís an innocence to Merrill, a personality constructed by someone who understands the small town life that makes him come across as gentle. I thought Phoenix was tremendous here, and would recommend that anyone who had been keen to dismiss movies simply on the basis of his presence in them should go to see Signs. It will elevate your opinion of the actor ten-fold.

Signs. All Rights Reserved.Since watching Signís directorís (M. Night Shyamalanís) first foray into the big budget world (The Sixth Sense) I have been convinced that he was the closest thing that film audiences will ever find to Hitchcock. In most every frame of Signs I found that FINALLY someone else had figured out that a movie watcher has an imagination. FINALLY another writer/director has twigged that not showing us something, and merely suggesting itís presence is far more frightening then actually constructing an alien to waggle itís tentacles about at you. (Here, again, I am thinking of Independence Day.) FINALLY someone else has realized that in order to make the most extraordinary stories palatable to an average everyday audience, you need to fill the stories with average people. Make their reactions real, their emotions genuine, and youíll pack the theatre again and again. 

I give Signs my highest recommendation. Itís a wonderful example of letting the audience participate in the movie-going experience by using their own creative energies to add to the tension of an already wonderful work. Itís a great night at the movies. (But a jittery drive home.) You may want to consider a matinee......

Jen Johnston
 
 
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