I imagine that if I had told fans of Signs that ten years after its release the film’s most successful alumnus would be Joaquin Phoenix–followed by Abigail Breslin–I would have been looked at as being as nutty as one of the film’s characters wearing a tinfoil hat. Was it really only a decade ago that Mel Gibson was on top of the world and M. Night Shyamalan had only made one film that wasn’t been as successful as The Sixth Sense? I would like to say that precipitous changes in Hollywood fortunes are, or can be, the foundation for vindications of critical judgments, but if this series has taught me anything it is that the rain falls on the Hollywood just and unjust alike.
Plus, was Signs really all that bad?
What I Said Then
(Originally written for Viewpoint, a precursor to this blog.)
At one point, Graham is carrying his son Morgan’s unconscious body and he keeps repeating, “There is a reason he had asthma, there was a reason!” Presumably he is equally happy now that there was also a reason his wife was killed–so she could deliver the message to Graham for him to give to his brother Merrill that will save Morgan’s life. So God doesn’t hate Graham after all, in fact He manipulates circumstance to provide this message just for him.
I’ve met a lot of people in my life who have struggled with the question of why bad things happen to good people. Inevitably some well meaning but unthinking Christian will offer an overly pat answer such as, “God doesn’t give you more than you can bear” to which the grieving parent, spouse, etc., replies, “So if I was weaker, God wouldn’t have killed my loved one?” Other times a Christian will avoid an unfortunate situation and proclaim, “God told me not to get on that plane (that was going to crash)!” To which the rest of the world asks, “Didn’t God care a whit about the other 200 people on the plane? What a shame they had to die to make you feel more confident that God loves you.” Does God never work through events then? Sure He does. And at times His actions don’t make sense to all of us. Why was Joseph given a warning before the slaughter of the innocents while thousands of other parents had to watch their children die? Why was Daniel supernaturally protected in the Lion’s Den while other Christian martyrs perished in steadfast faith? These are complex questions. Not one’s without answers, but ones which deserve greater and more serious answers than Signs is willing to provide.
What I Say Now
Do emotional judgments change more easily than critical ones?
I thought so, and, hey, I am a very different Christian than I was ten years ago. Truthfully, the ending doesn’t make me grind my teeth any more, but I think that has more to do with my knowing what is coming than it does with my being okay with it.
The lack of irritation (okay, outrage), in other words, stems from a lack of much of any emotion. As is not uncommon with many “twist ending” films, Signs does not bear up well under repeated viewings. With The Sixth Sense–or with other non-Shyamalan twist films like The Prestige or Psycho–there was an elegance to the plotting or some other elements that became even more noticeable once the initial surprise stopped overpowering every other element of the film.
Signs is more like a television procedural, withholding key pieces of information rather than hiding them. At best it is a mood piece, treating the plot as a throwaway to set up an exploration of techniques used to scare without showing much. Gibson’s acting isn’t great. It’s not bad; even in retrospect he has a lot of personal charm, but it’s not enough to carry the film, particularly when the script gives him only one, self-tortured note to play. Gibson emotes a lot, and when he doesn’t speak he seethes. That’s fine, some people are more expressive than others, but it doesn’t seem quite right for a man of the cloth who has allegedly held too much inside for too long.
Nor does Shyamalan appear to have the visual flair or technical innovation to match his admittedly imaginative writing. He’s plenty competent, don’t get me wrong, but if there is more to the images than simply establishing the action, if they contribute to the story rather than depict it, I don’t see how. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m a story junkie, and I’d rather watch a good plot unfold than revisit Samsara or a Terence Malick film. It’s just that when I find myself scanning the edges of every frame for something to visually hold my interest, that’s a pretty good sign that the story I found hackneyed trite the first go around has gotten any better with age.