Who is M. Night Shyamalan, and what the hell does he think he’s doing to the idea of the genre film?
In the space of three years, the 31-year-old writer/director has taken three of cinema’s go-to genres and laid them on the psychiatrist’s couch. The Sixth Sense took a ghost story and explored the refusal to accept loss. Unbreakable grappled with the search for one’s purpose in life in the guise of a superhero movie. And now, in Signs, Shyamalan has mixed an alien paranoia thriller with shattered religious faith. The cocky little so-and-so has taken the hot buttered popcorn of our matinée pleasures and dipped it in a huge brie of existential crisis.
Yes, Shyamalan might be insufferable—if it weren’t for the fact that his moody forays into genre also deliver such visceral satisfaction. Among contemporary filmmakers, perhaps only Steven Spielberg has proven as canny at mixing his crowd-pleasing instincts with high-art aspirations. Through some bizarre alchemy of Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman, Shyamalan has taken psychological drama and turned it into the stuff of box-office gold.
He’s got another hit on his hands in Signs, a thriller that delivers the goods even as it noodles around with underdeveloped Big Ideas. Mel Gibson stars as Graham Hess, a recent widower living on a Pennsylvania farm with his two children (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin) and younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). Once an Episcopal minister, Graham has abandoned his collar and his God after the death of his wife. But he’s forced to rethink his perspective on whether something else is “out there” when strange circles appear overnight in his cornfields. What he first suspects must be a hoax becomes part of a larger pattern, one that could involve the end of the world as we know it.
If you saw The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, you already know that Shyamalan’s sense of pacing ignores everything we’ve come to expect of post-MTV directors. Signs doesn’t rush forward so much as it slides, drifting from edgy moment to edgy moment on the strength of Shyamalan’s judicious use of music and his unusually lengthy takes. It doesn’t move the way we’re used to big-budget suspense films moving, laying an atmosphere of foreboding over the proceedings that could easily set off your pretention detectors from several theaters away.
But Shyamalan knows how to hit the throttle when it counts, and Signs delivers some of the most potent creep-outs you’ll see on a movie screen this year. He sets up an adrenaline-charged set piece with a shot held just long enough to send you creeping to the edge of your chair. A scene that would become an action “money shot” in another director’s film occurs offscreen in Signs in a scramble of dropped flashlights. Few directors of suspense seem to take the task of ratcheting up the anxiety seriously, relying instead on lame shock cuts. In a Shyamalan film, the waiting can be the most delicious part.
Unless, that is, you’re waiting for his weighty messages to deliver an equivalent emotional payoff. Signs wants to explore where we find our comfort from belief in the divine, but generally does so with the most tentative of baby steps. Gibson doesn’t give Graham’s anger enough teeth—his sense that the universe is now godless emerges through speeches rather than through actions. At times, it feels as though Signs is stopping dead in its tracks for a moment of thematic subtext. As part of a whole story, it’s never organic.
Shyamalan still has a few things to learn about constructing a narrative and convincing character arcs. His fondness for betcha-didn’t-see-that-coming plot twists emerges here in a credulity-stretching finale that asks us to ignore pretty much everything we’ve learned about the film’s antagonists. But as a visual filmmaker, Shyamalan shows extraordinary maturity, understanding how to set up a shot not just to show off, but to hit exactly the target he wants to hit.
Talented genre craftsmen are rare enough in Hollywood that you’ve got to appreciate what Shyamalan can do to give you shivers. As admirable as his desire to stretch the boundaries may be, he also needs to understand when his psyche-plumbing is getting in the way of a ripping good yarn. Maybe then, when the time is right, he’ll know how to give us our popcorn with nothing but plenty of butter.