Stars: ** 1/2
Rating: PG-13 for jumps, adult situations
Run Time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Director M. Night Shyamalan has a cross to bear, and it’s called “The Sixth Sense”. That commercial movie debut was the most talked-about film of 1999. His follow up, “Unbreakable”, was a minor blip on the movie radar, but all seems to be forgiven. Witness the August 5 cover of Newsweek, which hails Shyamalan as “The Next Spielberg”.
Breathe easy, Steven. Though Shyamalan’s “Signs” is artfully directed and well-conceived, it fails to locate and maintain a consistent tone.
Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix share most of the screen time as live-in brothers Graham and Merrill Hess. Graham has recently lost his wife to a tragic automobile accident, and has forsaken his faith (he’s the local minister) in exchange for playing Mr. Mom to young Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and uber-precious Abigail Breslin). The house, a brightly painted “Psycho” fortress, sits on the edge of acres of cornfield on a Bucks County, Pennsylvania farm. Think “Field of Dreams” or “Children of the Corn”.
Early on, a
series of crop circles appear in the corn.
Further investigation reveals similar incidents in
“Signs” is intended to be a “family thriller”. I prefer less family and more thrills. Ill-timed jokes cut through slowly growing reservoirs of tension, rendering the jumpy moments more childish than scary. The narrative refuses to build off the foundation of a single, strong tangent, and the resulting mismatch in tone is an annoying distraction. Shyamalan’s penchant for telegraphing the obvious serves only to add to the self-conscious nature of his story.
On a more positive note, the look is lush and the style tautly old-fashioned. Low-level POV angles spell impending doom. Musical homage to Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann is blatantly refreshing. And those damn cornfields radiate terror just by virtue of being there.