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Signs

He did it. M. Night Shyamalan did it. I haven't been scared in a movie theatre in over a decade. The horror/suspense films I've seen have become so formulaic, so trite and predictable, that nothing comes as a surprise anymore. My dry spell ends here, thanks to Mr. Shyamalan, and his new film Signs. My wife warned me about going into the theatre with expectations as high as mine were, but fortunately, my expectations were borne out, and then some.

This film follows Father Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a fallen minister whose faith has been destroyed by personal tragedy. Hess lives on farm in Pennsylvania with his son, Morgan (Rory Culkin), his daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix). When the fields outside the Hess farm suddenly sprout crop circles, the family begins to try to figure out what they mean, and what is to come.

Shyamalan said, in an article I read someplace, that this film wasn't like his previous films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. He said it was more like Night of the Living Dead, more like War of the Worlds. It was all that and more. This is a film about faith. This is a film about loss. This is a film about redemption. This is a film that should win a significant amount of awards.

Shyamalan has once again provided an action star with a vehicle to showcase their acting talents in a way they've not had the opportunity to try before. Bruce Willis was the star of the television show Moonlighting, and the I trilogy, but when Sixth Sense rolled around, he found a new depth to his abilities, playing the low-key and troubled child psychologist. In Unbreakable, he was an everyman, poised on the edge of failure, and his despair was so palpable you could practically reach out and touch it.

This time, it's Mel Gibson who learns the wonders of a Shyamalan script. Gibson, made famous by such films as the Mad Max series, the Lethal Weapon series, and films like Ransom, The Patriot and others, plays a calm, soft-spoken man who simply wants to try to pick up the shattered pieces of his life, protect his children, and try to re-discover normality. His fear, his anger, his compassion and his love for his family come shining through loud and clear, and evoke several scenes of real emotion, enough that tears came to my eyes more than once. His anguish is tangible, as if you're watching someone you know and love in pain, and its effect on the audience is incredible.

Joaquin Phoenix is fabulous as Merrill, the younger brother who had a brush with fame and failure simultaneously in his youth, both of which are remembered by the people in the community. He is the anchor, the road of faith that Graham can see but cannot walk down. He is also the one that provides his niece and nephew with the compassion and understanding their father isn't able to show all the time. Culkin and Breslin both do admirable jobs in their roles, and Breslin, in an innocent, non-scripted-seeming way, provides much of the tension relief in the film. This is a testimony to her abilities, but even more, to Shyamalan's writing.

The other cast members whose roles are notable are Officer Caroline Paski (Cherry Jones), who is the closest thing to a friend we see Graham interact with. She was the officer whose job it was to tell him of the tragedy in his past, and she continues to be the one who tells him what he must hear, even if he doesn't want to, both good and bad news. The second is Shyamalan himself, who has had small roles in all his films, thus likening him to Alfred Hitchcock, beyond the quality and depth of his films and directorial style. Shyamalan plays the local veterinarian, the cause of Graham's tragedy, and the catalyst for the final half hour of the film.

The direction is, as always, fabulous. This film isn't at all like either of Shyamalan's first two, but I would be hard pressed to pick which I like best (and I will not). This film is unique, and wonderful, and frightening, and reassuring... all at once. This film should be used as a lesson for all the Hollywood filmmakers who think they know how to do suspense. It almost hearkens back to the philosophy Val Lewton used in his B-Horror pictures in the 40's: "Three scenes of suggested violence, one scene of actual violence, and a bus." The bus, as Lewton uses it in his first film, is a jump-out-of-your-seat shock that doesn't necessarily advance the plot, but gives the audience a good jolt. Shyamalan has gone one better, actually letting his "bus" work as part of the story in addition to the good two-inch seat-leap it causes.

In addition to direction, however, three other members of the technical staff must be lauded for their work. First, Tak Fujimoto for his superb cinematography. Some of the shots used in this film are just inspired, particularly the reflection shots used near the middle of the film. The angles used in several of the outdoor shots tie in so perfectly with the storyline that they heighten an already 12-story level of suspense. Secondly, Richard King for his sound design. Not since I saw the advance showing of James Cameron's Aliens have I experienced such a tremendous use of the possibilities of surround-sound-equipped theatres. There were noises in some of the quieter scenes that had me jerking my head around to see what was coming up behind my left shoulder. Last, and most definitely not least, is James Newton Howard, the composer of the film's score. In the opening credits, the music is most reminiscent of a cross between North by Northwest and Psycho, yet not using themes from either. Just the feeling of the music is hectic, dangerous, uncertain and edgy, and puts you ill-at-ease right away. And, like all good film scoring, once the movie really gets going, you don't even notice the music, but it affects you nonetheless, heightening the tension and adding to the all-around filmic spectacle that this movie provides.

This movie gets my first A+ of the year. This film is downright frightening, both in its insights and its staging, and although it carries a PG-13 rating, unless your kids are mature, self-confident teens, I'd let them see something else. Once again, M. Night Shyamalan delivers exactly what is promised: a carnival ride of emotion, suspense and redemption. Bravo. Bravo, and thank you. What a great ride it was.


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