Audiences will Forgive Anything but a weak ending, or, conversely, will forgive almost everything for a strong ending. It's as if we're all suffering from a variant of the curious memory disorder that afflicts the hero of Memento -- all audiences have is short-term memory.This will probably damn M. Night Shyamalan's Signs, which wonders what might happen to a farm family in rural Pennsylvania if they woke up one morning and found crop circles in the corn that weren't a hoax. This is close to Shyamalan's method for The Sixth Sense (What if ghosts occupied the real world?) and Unbreakable (How would a superhero function in a non-comic-book universe?). Well, for one thing it would be moody.
Shyamalan has a talent for dread, whether it's in the haunted performances of Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, his character-defining use of colour or the framing of images that one feels are just shy of showing us something horrible.
Some say he's just a trickster, with his carefully constructed switcheroo endings, but if that were it, his films would just be elaborate Twilight Zone episodes. Audiences responded to the mood of The Sixth Sense, which was a more powerful evocation of alienation than anything in American Beauty.
In Signs, Mel Gibson stars as a minister who's lost his faith following his wife's death. There's some confusion about denomination in the film. He's referred to at times as a "reverend," but a couple of characters refer to him as "Father," so I suspect he's Episcopalian; they use a fair bit of Catholic terminology. (The studio probably didn't want people thinking he was Catholic, so other characters refer to him as a reverend instead of a priest or minister, which hits my ear awkwardly.)
Gibson mopes about, basically giving Bruce Willis's depressive performance from Unbreakable. Ironically, Shyamalan's written a perfect Kevin Costner part and given it to someone else.
Crop circles start showing up in great profusion around the world. Then, one day, strange lights are seen over dozens of cities. This part of the film, as the family hunkers down in the basement to wait for the end of the world, is tremendous.
Then comes the ending, which is carefully prepared but silly nonetheless, and disappointing in a number of ways that can't be described without giving it away. It's a Twilight Zone ending, and the closest the film comes to an action sequence. To put it simply, the endings of Sixth Sense and Unbreakable are prepared for during the picture and feel logical, whereas the finish of Signs feels like an obligatory trick ending. It also seems like a desperate attempt to avoid the genre's clichés, but of course they're an integral part of this kind of film.
When I play the video in years to come, I think I'll just shut it off when the characters leave the basement firstname.lastname@example.org
Signs written, produced and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, also produced by Frank Marshall and Sam Mercer, with Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin and Cherry Jones. 115 minutes. A Blinding Edge production. A Buena Vista Pictures release. Opens Friday (August 2). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 74. Rating: NNN