Thursday, August 23, 2012

A Review: Signs

"I think God did it. . ."
Every year for the past six, on the 23rd of August I watch this film. I chose this particular day because it is the day of birth for a very dear old friend of mine. She and I no longer speak, but that has only been a recent thing. Secretly, to honor her and our friendship, years ago I began watching this in a commemorative fashion of her, first time meeting each other, first hug, first laugh, everything since then, all the great years spent. Silly to you maybe, but call me a nostalgic old soul.

The years have gone by and still I dive into this film. Enjoying the saturation in the thrill, the wonder, the drama, and the dread each and every time.

This film stars four, and has one supporting. A family, and one knowing and motherly town cop. But, you could argue that it has two more supporting cast members. One in James Newton Howard's bone-chilling, full of ominous dread at times, and hope at others score. And, well, the other in the wind. The wind itself carrying the power to tell us, show us, warn us and to scare us. To provide us with signs.

Mel Gibson is Graham Hess, a retired Reverend and farmer who now spends his days with his children, while his brother Merrill (Phoenix) stays in the adjacent small guest house. An efficiency above the garage. Graham has a vast field of crops, a very classic and oldies feel farm house that looks as if it was stolen from a painting, and two wonderful children, Morgan and Bo, who are portrayed by powerfully intuitive actors (Culkin and Breslin). Two actors who understand material like this, should not be acted.

Even from the first shot, we see the daily stresses and fear he's gotten beaten into him from an earlier tragedy. From when and how he lost his faith. "Please stop calling me 'Father.'" It's just Graham now.

Hanging in the air and lurking around the bends of the house, wispy and haunting through the fields and into our minds, our hearts. It holds them dearly in it's grasp as the beats pump cold blood into our stream. This is maybe this is what called the children outside to see the circles. But the film starts with them. He tells the local police officer that they can't be bent by hand, "It's too perfect." In between this, we're getting something else with the children. Much of the circumstances surround us in the film because of them. And nothing happens that should, and sometimes that we never counted on either.

What is it about the darkness of the night, enshrouding a cornfield that scares us? The fact that it's a thick sea that holds. . . Well--we're not sure. And not sure where it is inside the crops either. And that's the why we're so scared. This literally goes bump in the night, and as we cannot see what's causing much of the noise, the moon's glow shines over the farm and wolf's howl breeze keeps on. The family of four has some obvious chemistry together as actors, which makes their slight disfunctionality all the more pleasing (or painful) to watch.

The breakout stars are Breslin and even more so, Rory Culkin steals the screen from everyone. Commanding his presence with patience, adult formed comic timing and confidence, here is an actor ladies and gentleman.

And I'll say, Gibson's performance was something I really treasured after this was over. I can't think of a more thoughtful and subdued character he's played. Soft, patient, dutiful as the limping father. His daughter Bo (the most adorable thing this side of Shirley Temple or Dakota Fanning in I Am Sam) asks him "why do you talk to mom when your alone?" "Makes me feel better." "Does she ever answer back?" After a beat he tells her the truth. "No." Than Bo confesses, "She never answers me either." There we go Mr. Shyamalan.

The conversations with the family are aptly written, stark contrasts between characters, and the actors making them their own. This is a bit of the dynamics of the Hess brothers and why the characters are so appealing to me to watch on screen:
Merrill: "It's time for an ass-whoopin'."
Graham: "This is not an intelligent way to approach this."
That continues the entire film. It's damned great. Sometimes it's funny, sometimes sad, or compelling. In a truly great feat of acting restraint and intelligence of a craft veteran, Gibson's Graham comforts his slightly younger brother Merrill about the two groups of people in the world. He tells him about faith, luck, coincidence and touches on who is really up stairs, if anyone. Gibson brings to his words and Phoenix gives us the sense his brother is impacting him greatly as Shyamalan holds still and the TV illuminates his face in the darkness of the room.

Using not pounding, dazzling and whirling aesthetics and visuals, we get intelligent people and, not much else. No car chases, no Alien fights with lasers and the military, not the President grandstanding. We get aluminum hats for secret-though protection, endless glasses of half drank water, a daughter who might be more than we see at first hand, knives for mirrors, confessions, forgiveness, hate, love, sneaking, creeping, running, screaming, inhalers and baseball bats. In a few flashes of a seamless screenplay, we see just little details I like. We understand why Graham ops to call the doctor for a dog problem, instead of the vet. What his wife did. Merrill's guilty habit now that he's not a ball-player anymore (and a funny story behind why he's not a major-leaguer too).

I liked the connection we get from history with Cherry Jones' officer Paski and her feelings of kind servitude towards Graham and his family. How Merrill maybe learns what exactly the Aliens are doing and what explains their behavior. I liked the pharmacy scene and epilogue afterwards at the pizza shop. And especially how, in little flashes up until the end, we bite off more and more of the backstory of Graham's wife.

And that's the point, little by little, is the angle of approach here. The Aliens serve us nothing, the fear, is what they'll do if they get us. The fear, is that we haven't been caught yet, and whether we will be from whatever is lurking out there. Out there hiding in the winds. While avoiding the temptation to deliver thrills in creature effects and make-up, Night forgoes that in favor of character development and big loud noises, paired with soft creeping noises.

One of the scariest moments for me was watching a newscaster give an update. He rocks for a second, trying to get settled, squeezes his pen, takes another beat after that, and then ultimately pushes through. His eyes are red, maybe even teary, and the man is bravely reporting the events even though he is obviously confused and dripping with anxiety and fear. The last words we then hear from the outside world is him praying aloud to the camera: ". . .God be with us all."

Calling back Morgan's (Culkin) first words to us are, "I think God did it. . ." He's staring into the family's newly designed crops. Let's think for a second--what if he did? And that's what attracted the aliens, and not them doing it themselves as maps to mark the planet with. What if God did to gather the people of the world, and bring pressure on them to survive. To ban together. To Live. To Love. To Cherish. To think. To react. Who's to say really? Not any of us. Maybe not even Graham.

This is a film about family and strength.
This is a film about faith.
This a film about fear.
This a film about aliens.
This is a film about guidance.
This a film about God.
This a production of masterful craftsmanship.

Like an opera, it goes up, and down, high and low, hard and soft. Ultimately building and building to the massive emotional climax of the production. And when we get there, for all that we have not seen, we have see so much more.

I look forward to next August 23rd and know what awaits me. Happy Birthday Penguin. I miss you everyday.

Munki Out.

1 comment:

  1. I've watched this movie four oor five times, my first time being in the homogenized atmosphere of the movie theater. It was there, and there alone that I felt everything that you were talking about. The mass welling up of emotions helped carry my own with the crowd to become one giant human centipede of emotion. When the tensions or attachments to characters strengthened, I was very happy to receive the mass stimuli and feel it as well. This being said, the following times watching this movie, my logical side overpowered my emotions by 9:1 ratio. What kind of farmer raises that much product and does not have field sprinklers? Even if they were the ground based water dispensing units, during the first part of the movie Graham Hess is a total nonbeliever of just about everything. Just water your crops and then sit back and watch a bunch of camouflaged aliens try to escape your field like children who just knocked a Killer Bees' nest down from a tree. I can really only ever accept this movie for the great piece of film that it is when I am watching it with a group of people that can put me back in that rush of emotions.