Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan
Written by:M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Cherry Jones, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin
Released: August 15, 2002
Grade: A-

Director M. Night Shyamalan emerged from nowhere when The Sixth Sense became the most talked about film of 1999.  Its shock twist dazzled audiences and highlighted the staleness of other thrillers emanating from Hollywood.  As a follow-up, Shyamalan offered us Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson in Unbreakable.  Those looking for a Sixth Sense rehash were disappointed but more discerning filmgoers appreciated its little nuances and overall uniqueness.

In the space of three years, Shyamalan has become one of the world’s prominent directors and with ascendancy has come power.  Without divulging its secrets, Signs is a very different film that if pitched to a studio by a first-time writer, would never make it past a first reading.  It’s unconventional and frustrates the audience by not showing them want they want to see.  In the wake last year’s terrorist bombings and in an era when studios hate taking even the slightest financial risk, only a writer-director like Shyamalan would have the clout to see Signs reach the big screen.  Thank goodness.

So what can I tell you about the film?  Not much I’m afraid.  I’ve spoken out recently against trailers that show every key plot twist and every important line of dialogue.  As an exception to the norm, the trailer for Signs gives nothing away and to reward Shyamalan’s efforts to keep the film’s identity hidden from us, I’ll keep my trap shut.  Concealing the truth only adds to the intrigue.  Aren’t you just the slightest bit interested by the part of the trailer where Mel Gibson’s daughter calmly says to him “Daddy, there’s a monster at my window, can I have a glass of water.”

Given that I refuse to speak about the film, I will spend the remainder praising the efforts of its creators and collaborators.  M. Night Shyamalan makes a more effective use of sound than any current filmmaker.  If you minimise dialogue, amplify background sounds and craft a subtle yet tingling film score, you can create tension amongst your audience.  As In The Bedroom showed back in January, a quiet cinema provides an eerily uncomfortable feeling - the perfect amphitheatre for a thriller.

With cinematographer Tak Fujimoto, Shyamalan also makes dynamic use of his camera lens.  The cameras are placed in deliberate locations and moved with precision to ensure we see only what they want us to see.  As you yourself will see, a reflection off a television screen or an expression on a character’s face can create more suspense than a conventional shot.  Nothing is rushed.

Both Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix give intense performances but to an extent, are overshadowed by their supporters.  Poorly cast children can ruin best efforts (ala Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace) but Rory Culkin (younger brother of Macaulay) and Abigail Breslin are equal to their elders.  I also enjoyed the serious, somewhat doey demeanour of a police officer played by Cherry Jones - the most memorable of the cast.

With a mandate to improve cinema, M. Night Shyamalan is doing just that.  The “signs” are all good for the future.