Wake up! Snap to! Mel Gibson does both the first time we see him in Signs. You'll know why when you see the movie, a dazzling white-knuckler from the probing mind of M. Night Shyamalan, the writer and director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. Here's the thing about Shyamalan: Any hack can work you over. Shyamalan, in the Hitchcock tradition, goes deeper. He turns the goose-pimple genre on its empty head and fills it with spirit, purpose and emotionally bruised characters who add up to more than body count. That's why his films haunt you.
Gibson gives one of his best and most surprising performances as Graham Hess, a Pennsylvania farmer and Episcopalian minister who turned in his collar six months earlier after blaming God for letting his wife die in an accident. Now Graham wakes up in a cold sweat. He races outside looking for his kids, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). He finds them in a cornfield. The kids stare in frightened awe. Us, too. Crop circles, huge ones, have been carved into the field, each cornstalk bent but not broken. Is it a prank or a sign of something supernatural, maybe even an alien invasion?
You didn't think I was going to give away any secrets in this review, did you? Signs deserves the chance to creep up on you. In his own elegant and exacting way, Shyamalan knows how to grab you, put your nerves in a vise and squeeze. But his first job, one he handles beautifully, is to make us care about the Hess family, which includes Graham's younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a local baseball hero who blew his chance. "You could have made it, had beautiful women lick your toes," a townie tells Merrill, who has moved back home to help his brother. Phoenix registers impressively, finding the humor and the pain in this lost boy. Shyamalan's script doesn't skimp on laughs. To scare a mysterious figure outside the farmhouse, Merrill tells Graham to run around cursing. The best the Rev can come up with is: "I'm insanely angry." It's also a kick watching the kids, played with natural wit and grace by Culkin and Breslin, wearing aluminum hats so any invading ETs won't be able to read their thoughts. But Signs doesn't stay light for long. Characters turn up, including a local cop (Cherry Jones) and a neighbor (Shyamalan himself in an strong cameo), dropping hints about what has left the Hess family so damaged. Gibson and Phoenix are both terrific, never making a false move as a helpless Merrill watches his rock of a brother crumble into a despairing crisis of faith.
Evoking such diverse films as The Birds, War of the Worlds and The Blair Witch Project, Shyamalan expertly turns the screws of fear, especially when a basement is plunged into darkness or a little girl says simply, "The monster is outside my room — can I have a glass of water?" Coupled with the dark chill of Tak Fujimoto's camera lighting and the Psycho jangle of James Newton Howard's score, Signs jolts you, again and again.
Still, it's the film's spiritual dimension — a Shyamalan trademark — that brings distinction to Signs. You could bitch about the plot holes (can the Hess farm really be that isolated?), the measured pacing, the too-tidy resolution, the return to psychological ground already covered in The Sixth Sense. For me, Signs transcends all that through the sheer force of its storytelling and the faith in things beyond the tangible that Shyamalan brings to the battle between good and evil. Follow his Signs. It will take a piece out of you.