Children of the Corn

A crop of bad luck: Mel Gibson in 'Signs'

A crop of bad luck: Mel Gibson in 'Signs'

Much of the pleasure of an M. Night Shyamalan film derives from how the director dispenses information--not in one Big Gulp, but in sips and dribbles. Like the characters, the viewer is forced to peer around corners, while wincing, too, at what might be seen. The best way to watch Signs is not to know anything about it. My advice: If you liked Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, and even if you thought his Unbreakable was rather arcane, buy yourself a ticket to Signs and peruse the reviews afterward. In other words: Stop reading now. Unless, that is, you're an atheist or an American patriot critical of the "patriotism" that claims "God is on our side." In those two cases, I can't guarantee enjoyment--although I can point out a few signs that encourage an alternative reading of what is, until the horrific end, a long bungee jump of a movie, suspenseful and suspending.

Anyone who has witnessed the trailer knows that Signs has something to do with Mel Gibson protecting some kids from something to do with crop circles in corn fields. Gibson's recent roles all seem to involve leading armies and/or protecting children--which may be psychological fallout from that army of children the actor himself has fathered. Hence the movie appears to lack drama from the start: Mel Gibson and crop circles are as passé as black helicopters, militia paranoia, and alien abduction. Of course, in this era of Bush #2, the flying helicopters, citizen-spying, and abductions of aliens legal and otherwise occur as fact rather than as fantasy or prank. Welcome back crop circles. (Are they "real" this time?)

And welcome back Gibson, who actually stirs himself (or is stirred by Shyamalan) to attempt some novel expressions: Seems he has been attending the School for Bruce Willis Stand-Ins. As yet another in the writer-director's line of grieving middle-aged white men, Gibson's Graham Hess is a single father raising two children on a corn farm outside Philadelphia. Gibson lets his jaw unclench and the lines around his mouth hang; he does a fair job with the slope-shouldered, slack-faced mope that Willis has made to signify emotional constipation.

Graham's children Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin) are also mourning, if in iconoclastic ways. Graham's brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) has returned from a stint in the minor leagues to provide some leavening vivacity, though he carries burdens of his own. Then all hell starts to break loose in the cornfield. It's a tribute to Shyamalan's growing strength as a screenwriter that Signs offsets its heaviness and fright with so much humor. The Sixth Sense relied on gross-outs and sentimentalized kid stuff for whatever humor it mustered; Unbreakable was unshakably dour but for a few comic-book in-jokes. Here, Shyamalan and his actors create funny moments from the characters' discomfort, from how bodies line up on a couch, and, yes, from snappy verbal and visual punch lines. The movie is more surprising--and scarier--for it.

Certainly the director still makes me jump--even in a film that, as expected, connects crop circles to UFOs. He's smart not to show anything of the threat for a long time. Rather, he builds an uneasy mood from the sounds of things: blue jays, wind, TV static, skin sliding on a windshield, weird noises on a baby monitor. Sixth Sense cinematographer Tak Fujimoto extends shots, saws slowly back and forth between characters, backs away as a character steps forward: all the usual Shyamalan camera moves. They still work. There are also some wonderfully odd perspective shots. It's a fun movie to watch.

And, for a while, it's a fun movie to think about. On multiple levels, Signs plays with questions of faith: whether a person believes in fate, or in making her own; whether God exists, or nature alone; whether trust in human "community" swells or shrinks in times of danger (particularly within the U.S.). Finally, though, the movie presents its answers, which seem to support the position that some human lives--American lives--are more important to "God" than others are. I left the theater feeling nauseated.

But then, on the drive home, I remembered that Shyamalan likes to fool viewers. In retrospect, the "Americanness" of the Hess farmstead began to look archetypal. The watery glass through which Graham peers became a perspective, a bias. A native Philadelphian, Shyamalan is of Indian ancestry; right now some Americans are eager to label skin like his "alien." (Note the recent airport interrogation of a vacationing Indian film star.) India plays a significant role in Signs, and so does Shyamalan. Perhaps the movie advances xenophobia only to critique it.

Or maybe I'm seeing signs where there are none.