Signs of the Father
When Signs begins, crop circles have popped up overnight in the fields behind the house of Graham Hess, a former reverend-turned-farmer played by Mel Gibson. Are they the work of local hooligans, a global hoax, or a celestial calling card announcing the arrival of aliens with dubious intent? The movie wastes no time in confirming this last hypothesis, assuring us that the aliens are not here for our health.
For a short while in M. Night Shyamalan’s new psychological thriller, the stage seems set for a classic sci-fi tale tinged with old-fashioned red-scare paranoia, War of the Worlds meets Invasions of the Body Snatchers. But after his last two bait-and-switch films, The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, in which trick endings exposed a more textured and nuanced narrative underneath, the auteur reveals his most ambitious sleight-of-hand yet. When the final revelation comes in Signs, it’s in the guise of an undeniable endorsement for conservative family values, a proselytizing for God Himself as a balm against the apocalypse.
Gibson’s Hess is a loving father of a precocious boy who suffers from asthma and a girl who tastes something funny in the tap water. Living with them is Hess’ younger brother, a has-been minor leaguer who could have gone pro but for his high strike-out average. They share a farm in Pennsylvania, united in their grief over the loss of Hess’ wife six months prior. It was her senseless death in a car accident late one night that made the Reverend Hess turn his back on God and on his congregation (although the townspeople persist in calling him “Father.”) But God — or Shyamalan — won’t let Hess ignore his responsibilities. While an alien armada hovers ominously over major cities throughout the world, the bulk of the movie contends with Hess’ relationships to his children and his brother, and through them to his deceased wife and to God.
Family has been an intrinsic element in Shyamalan’s films, no doubt stemming from the director’s own close familial bonds. (The 31-year-old director will only shoot in or nearby his home in Philadelphia so as to be near his parents, wife, and children.) Born in India and reared in a Hindu household in the suburbs of Philly, Shyamalan attended Catholic school as a child and describes his religious heritage as a mixed bag. A moody spirituality pervades his films, an ambiguous sense of cosmic right and wrong and inevitable predestination. “I’m about as far away from spirituality as you can think,” he said in an interview last year. “Then I sit down [to write] and suddenly people are having epiphanies, and God’s coming to them — I don’t know what that’s all about.”
Unfortunately for Signs, neither do we. As a result, the story is a confused and contrived dark night of the soul for Hess. At one point in the film, Hess’s brother asks for some priestly advice as Armageddon draws nigh. There’s two kinds of people in the world, he counsels, those who find meaning in life’s coincidences and others who don’t. The people who do are comforted by the knowledge that there is a greater plan at work, a divinity that shapes our ends. Those who don’t are on their own.
Hess clearly belongs to the latter camp. He’s alone in his faithlessness even when huddled around the dinner table for a Last Supper with his family on the eve of the alien invasion. “I will not waste one more minute of my life on prayer!” he yells at his frightened son. But even his denial of faith feels like evangelism, especially during a tense scene where he spits out the words “I hate you! I hate you!” in a passionate address to God, whom he blames for his family’s misfortune.
The trick ending turns out to be merely the title itself. Shyamalan would have us initially believe that Signs describes the portentous crop circles. In fact, it refers to the prosaic events and throwaway words that accumulate throughout the movie, signals, it turns out, from on high. When Hess finally connects the dots — leftover glasses of half-drunk tap water, an asthmatic child, a retired baseball bat hung on a wall, and the seemingly random last words of his dying wife — the miracle, and perhaps the deus ex machina, is too strong for him to deny God’s handiwork.
Last fall, as the country still reeled from the revelation that we are not unbreakable, Signs was touted as the first Hollywood film to go into production after September 11 (it began shooting on September 13th). At the time, people flocked to synagogues and churches — just as they do in the film — in search of answers, and many rediscovered their faith. This might be enough to explain the film’s dreamy quality, that same slow-paced style that Shyamalan employed effectively in the past, but here it just plays like sentimentalism.
When Hess regains his faith in the end, wearing black suit and crisp white collar, it comes at the expense of our own in a director who was once comfortable in the grey area between life and death, belief and doubt.
Paul W. Morris has been involved with the website in several capacities since early 2001, including editor, marketing consultant, event producer, and contributor. He was an editor at Viking Penguin and Tricycle: The Buddhist Review before becoming a freelance gun for hire. He’s killed time at Entertainment Weekly and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia staring into the abyss, but nothing stared back. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including his introduction to a recent translation of Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha. The former Director of Literary Programs at PEN America and Vice President of the Authors Guild, he currently serves as the Executive Director of the literary nonprofit House of SpeakEasy. He lives in New York City.