Field of Screams
Approximately 250 eerie crop circle formations appear throughout the world each year. Some people think this is a hoax, but thousands of these events have been documented during the past ten years. M. Night Shyamalan’s creepy Signs explores what might happen to an American family whose cornfield suddenly becomes host to a bizarre pattern of circles and lines.
Combining his attraction to "the beauty, the grandeur and the mystique" of crop circles with his ability to tell stories about regular people trying to survive extraordinary situations, writer/director Shyamalan, of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable fame, has created another edge-of-your-seat psychological thriller. Credit also goes to splendid casting choices for Shyamalan's new film. Top-notch performances help make this farfetched sci-fi story more believable than I expected it could be.
Mel Gibson (We Were Soldiers) brings his trademark intensity to the role of a farmer trying to protect his children while still suffering from his wife’s death and from a crisis of faith. A former Episcopalian priest, Gibson’s character no longer trusts in God because of his wife’s fatal accident. Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator), playing Gibson’s younger brother, projects just enough mystery to pique my curiosity about the individual he portrays. I wanted to know more about this former baseball star, a man not ashamed to put tinfoil on his head as a shield from extraterrestrial brain probing.
But it’s the children who impressed me most in Signs, just like Haley Joel Osment did in The Sixth Sense. Rory Culkin (You Can Count on Me), portraying Gibson’s asthmatic son, almost broke my heart, especially in scenes showing that brave little boy carrying such heavy emotional burdens on his small shoulders. And tiny Abigail Breslin, making her film debut as the youngest member of the family, is quite a discovery – she’s so cute and endearing, despite her annoying fear of unclean water glasses. I believe Shyamalan must have great rapport with child actors. Culkin agrees. "Night is probably the best director I have worked with," he declares.
And now for the scary parts. Reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s thrillers, most of them occur while waiting for frightening things to happen. What kind of creatures are in that cornfield? We glimpse what could be a leg – but maybe it’s just a stalk waving in the night breeze. We hear strange noises – but they could be coming from a malfunctioning baby monitor. Shyamalan cites Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Birds, and Night of the Living Dead as his inspirations for the way he wanted Signs to feel. Although that’s close to what I experienced throughout this suspenseful movie, one scene came close to breaking the spell -- a kind of "last supper" sequence which struck me as out of place because of its mean-spirited dialogue.
Shyamalan’s films always leave me with something to think about. After seeing The Sixth Sense, questions about communication with the dead started invading my thoughts. Unbreakable caused me to ponder more about the limits of human potential. And now I have to worry about those darn crop circles. One thing I know for certain -- I’m staying out of cornfields for awhile.
(Released by Touchstone Pictures and rated "PG-13" for some frightening moments.)