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Signs

dir: M. Night Shyamalan
[img_assist|nid=1028|title=Signs and more signs for your own protection|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=763]
It's an interesting film, I'll give it that much. And it's a credit to M. Night Shyamalan that he manages to get the best performance out of Mel Gibson that I've seen in nearly a decade. As for how successful the film is overall, well, that's hardly a question for the ages.

Box office-wise, Signs has managed to dispel the fear that arose of "one hit wonderness" after the lackluster receipts that the far more ambitious Unbreakable was responsible for. He's managing to incorporate the quite difficult aspects of credible film making and ticket sale success, and then some. He is undoubtedly a populist director, making stories that are on the surface fairly straight-forward that manage to tap in to either the collective unconscious or issues of pop cultural currency without being either pretentious or lowest common denominator shit-stupid.

His level of subtlety is not what I would call delicate, but this film at the very least stands as a testament to his willingness to tackle commonplace ideas with his own individual take, willing to not always give audiences what they want initially with the view of giving them something completely different at film's end. It's a conceited bait-and-switch, I know, but as someone who's seen literally thousands of films over the years, it's something I can appreciate.

I had long ago given up on Mel Gibson. In my mind he has become such a ham of an actor that expecting a decent performance from him would be classified by myself as an exercise in futility and by the psychiatric diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals throughout the Western world, the DSM-IV, as a "profoundly delusional state". Picture if you will without getting nauseous the alleged "characters" he's been portraying for the last decade and a half. Whether it be the repugnant all encompassing "father" figure in Ransom, who to me was even more loathsome than the villains in the film, or the even worse character he assayed in The Patriot, the wretched, ham-vomiting Benjamin Martin, in a film that paid the same level of honour to the heroes of the American Revolution that Jerry Bruckheimer did to the fallen in Pearl Harbor: you're not talking quality acting here. I get the feeling that he gave up on the concept of portraying a character in films so much as just giving us the viewers another "facet" of the wonderfulness that is Mel.

Success is not a bad thing, in and of itself. With his one man band act of directing and starring in Braveheart, I feel that Mel may have lost the plot slightly. This is an actor thatdid great work early in his career, and I mean GREAT work, and I feel that I can easily say it's because he actually bothered playing characters in the films he was in. Honestly, I'm not just making one of those cases where "Oh yeah, their early stuff was great but now they're shit" type simplistic arguments. His early credits represent some damn fine films and some damn fine performances: Gallipoli, Mad Max 1 & 2, The Bounty, the first Lethal Weapon, even The River, for crying out loud. After that he seemed to be more of a "name" than an actor: women were supposed to swoonover him,and men would want to be him or at least want to have a beer with him. I of course purely wanted to punch him in the nuts.

Braveheart represented critical and commercial validation on a vast scale for him, and it was an okay film, but to link in with a recent article that the illustrious Darren J Seeley posted on this here illustrious website, to get all retroactive on your asses, I think that maybe Mel had seen the vastly superior Branagh version of Henry V and been inspired by that, to great comedic effect.

In Signs I actually believed that he was playing the character of Father Graham Hess. It doesn't seem like much of a distinction, but after decades of watching him "be" himself and "be" in crap film after crap film, I almost feel as if Shyamalan worked the same redemptive magic on Mel that he perpetrated on Bruce Willis, not once but twice. I genuinely felt the character's struggle with his faith, and with a life that had dealt him wrong on too profound a scale, I actually believed the man's struggle. And you don't know what that means for someone that is a profound unbeliever.

There are three main areas where this film achieves its modest goals, and they are quite modest. Don't let the film's success blind you to this fact; it is a surprisingly modest film, in scale and realisation, far less ambitious than The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, certainly. The virtue of Shyamalan's vision is that it sticks to the view of the personal superceding "big picture" concerns: he has, at least in his last three films taken genre ideas; ghosts, comic book heroes and alien encounters, and looked at how they affect individuals, and not society at large. It's an important point, I think, and it points to how or why audiences can identify and respond to his films.

The first aspect is the personal reaction of his characters to events that take place, the second is that it takes a (somewhat dated) pop cultural "event" or idea and fucks with it (crop circles and the geeks that love them, and alien invasion stories), and thirdly, and most simultaneously redundant and potentially complex, ideas of faith in the concept that there is a grand plan, or a supreme benevolent diety out there that cares about our daily concerns.

The ideas regarding faith have little complexity as represented in the film, but they do work on the modest scale that Shyamalan is concerned with.

Where we come into the story, Graham Hess has abandoned his faith in the Christian God because his wife died in such a senseless fashion six months previous. He's been trying to hold his life together, and be a good father to his two kids, but he's definitely struggling.

Occasions where other characters call him "Father" cause him discomfort and great irritation. But that's how they know him, so they persist in doing so, even when he asks them not to. As the film progresses, he is gradually shown the error of his ways and is brought back into the fold at film's end. I doubt I'm spoiling anything for the masses out there, but you weren't really going to get a film where a guy questions his faith and has it confirmed by film's end that he based his life on a selection of carefully prepared aspirational and irrational bullshit from the cradle to the grave, and has his apostasy verified. It's just not kosher. It's not uplifting either.

What we do get is two sequences that show what a good writer Shyamalan is as well. The first is a conversation where Graham and his brother are discussing how people approach phenomena, being situations that fall outside the norm of regular human experience. Graham posits the idea that there are two types of people in this sad, sorry world: those that view a virtually apocalyptic set of scenarios with a belief that no matter what crazy shit happens, there is still Someone Out There that cares about them, and will see them through regardless, whether it be in this life or the next. The other type of people feel that there is no one out there, and whatever bad shit may or may not happen, you're on your own.

The second situation that had that level of power had a character saying openly "I hate you, I hate you so much" to a God they felt they'd been betrayed by, when it seems that one of their loved ones is about to die. It's easy to downplay this sort of stuff, but it was, at least to me, quite affecting.

To take the time to tell a deity that you hate them represents at least one thing: you still believe, you're just goddamn angry with them for the shit they allow to happen to their faithful. Which is what the film is all about, beginning to end. It's not something that I can appreciate on a personal spiritual level, since the only holy spirits I appreciate come out of bottles with names like Stolichnaya, Canadian Club and Jameson's, but I can appreciate it intellectually / artistically.

The other strange currency that the film has, which surely wasn't intended when it was being made, was the idea of individuals responding to a crisis from the outskirts of "importance", seeing how they deal with it in their own way. Initially, the first impression is that this is like a bizzaro world Hallmark Channel version of that shitefest Independence Day, where instead of focusing on the stereotype characters that give the big, banal speeches and who fight and triumph over the evil aliens and thus save the world on a grand scale, you're actually focused on the "little" people, and seeing how they deal with the big events. Their motivation is purely survival, and protecting their families, and yet they manage their little victories as well, with the help of a benevolent deity, of course.

The constant reference to watching grand scale events on television cannot be lost on an audience living in a post September 11 world, where countless millions watched one of these grand scale events on television and felt helpless to affect the outcome. It is sadly ironic to watch those aspects of the film, considering their veracity.

Of Shyamalan's last three films, this was the only one that had a predictable ending, for me, which was a bit of a let down. It is also the least technically impressive of his films, which is not necessarily a criticism. The performances, including the child actors, are uniformly excellent, even the director's little cameo (though routinely criticised) is appropriate. He manages to get low-key performances out of his actors, which to me at least currently seems to be the best way to go in terms of getting value for your dollar as a director. The writing in most cases is good, in that it's not insulting to the intellect, though a few montages towards the end to explain stuff that we all knew anyway is.

It's an interesting film. It's not a disappointment by any stretch, it's not a masterpiece either. It is a respite from Hollywood shiteness, all the same, but I'm sure, despite my surprise at being moved by a performance by Mel Gibson, that it's not really going to change my world view any time soon.

7 times aliens can master interstellar travel and world domination, but they can’t work out how to open a pantry door or put on a rain coat out of 10

--
"What are you looking at, sugartits?" - Mel during one of his more recent performances in front of police, Signs

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