No matter which corner of the weird and wonderful world of cinephilia you happen to camp out in, mentioning the name “M. Night Shyamalan” probably comes with an equally complicated level of baggage. Many argue that the former Next Spielberg is a misunderstood visionary whose strengths as a genre filmmaker were unfairly corrupted by the mainstream Hollywood machine. Others maintain that he’s an overrated hack, a one-trick pony with an explosive ego and no real range. I’m not sure where I fall on that spectrum (likely somewhere in-between), but I have no trouble arguing that 2002’s Signs is the director’s most successful film to date, a quiet meditation on faith and coincidence that trades big-budget spectacle for low-fi simmer. Combining Tak Fujimoto’s intimate and often invasive cinematography with a frightening James Newton Howard score that evokes (among others) Bernard Herrmann’s work on Psycho, Shyamalan creates what a friend of mine once wisely referred to as our first truly post-9/11 movie — a shy and introverted piece about paranoia and conspiracy that plays on our worst fears about the dangerous world around us.
Gladiator. He’s clean-cut and handsome, embodying the kind of wasted potential all too common in those outlying communities.
Anyway. Signs is a slow burn, and Merrill works hard to calm his niece and nephew’s paranoia about the so-called alien invaders during the film’s early segments. That practiced swagger is easy at first: rival ne’er-do-well Lionel Prichard (Michael Showalter) is clearly responsible for the strange crop circles on his brother’s property, and Merrill figures he can fix that with some tough talk and a little intimidation. He’d invite any opportunity to get his hands a bit dirty, really. In another timeline, he’d be the jock at the party who gets tuned up, punches a hippie, and leaves with the prettiest girl. With his brother grieving, though, Merrill sees it as his responsibility to provide a little optimism and security to the wounded family. But after a bizarre nighttime encounter with some high-jumping, fleet-footed chameleons – who, Merrill assures police officer Paski (the wonderful Cherry Jones) are definitely not Female Scandinavian Olympians – he starts to see things the kids’ way. Maybe the locals aren’t as dim-witted and incompetent as he’d let himself believe. Maybe the crop circles are a little too advanced for Lionel Prichard and the Wolfington brothers. Maybe this isn’t just all in the kids’ imaginations.