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Field of screams 

Suspense of Signs overcomes household angst

M. Night Shyamalan's characters are so alienated, it was only a matter of time before real aliens showed up. In the films that make up the writer-director's signature work, otherworldly elements illuminate everyday angst. The Sixth Sense shows how seeing dead people (not to mention being one) magnify family tensions, while Unbreakable suggests that the solution is getting in touch with your inner superhero.Shyamalan takes domestic distress a step further in Signs, in which the prospect of extraterrestrial invasion provides the backdrop to a family's grief and a father's spiritual crisis. The juxtaposition could scarcely be more heavy-handed, yet Shyamalan's powers at creating and drawing out dread makes Signs work.

Most of the film takes place on the farm of the former Rev. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), who awakens one morning to discover that his cornfield has been flattened into a sequence of strange, round shapes. Shyamalan knows that the "crop circle" phenomenon isn't innately terrifying, and a local deputy (Cherry Jones) even indicates how to make your own. But the circle presages stranger events, such as the dangerously erratic behavior of household pets, chittering noises on an old baby monitor and TV coverage of eerie lights gathering over major cities.

The global panic only gradually takes precedence over the Hess' unhappiness. Since the death of his wife, Graham has hung up his clerical collar and turned his back on his church. His dislike at being called "Father" only highlights his troubles with his children, bookish Morgan (Rory Culkin) and quirky Bo (Abigail Breslin), who has a phobia of drinking water. Graham's brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a former minor league ballplayer turned gas station attendant, tries to lend support.

Shyamalan gets sympathetic yet believably quirky work from his child actors, but Gibson tends to repeatedly hit the same downbeat note. He's not as effective an under-actor as The Sixth Sense's Bruce Willis. Despite living on a farm, Graham has a poor grasp on earthy matters. He's not only uncomfortable with cursing, he has trouble simply feigning rage. When he and Merrill try to chase off unseen intruders, Graham shouts, "I am insane with anger!" in one of the film's funnier moments.

As a filmmaker, Shyamalan has comparable emotional limitations. Steven Spielberg had complete comfort in peopling early films like Jaws and Close Encounters with middle-American everymen. But Shyamalan's ordinary folks appear caught in some kind of existential limbo. Signs' other rural residents, like a twitchy bookseller and a sinister Army recruiting officer, seem mentally off-kilter. Shyamalan does find comedy in hysteria, as when the Hess kids start wearing aluminum foil hats.

But an overhead shot of a small town, like a UFO's eye-view, instills paranoia more than the human scenes do. And whenever Shyamalan stops trying to be "normal," Signs creates a skin-crawling mood of nightmares coming true. His shot composition shows him to be an avid student of Hitchcock, as when Graham uses a knife blade as a mirror to look under the door of a locked pantry to see what's lurking inside.

Signs thrives on misdirection and half-glimpsed threats, with hulking shapes in the shadows and clawed fingers reaching around corners. One piece of amateur video evokes that famous, blurry Bigfoot footage. The last half-hour finds the family under siege, and makes conscious homages to The Birds and The Blair Witch Project.

The film is so good at keeping you off-balance that you're never completely sure if the events you're watching will turn out to be some kind of hoax or hallucination. Bo refers to prophetic dreams and the diction of TV newscasters is weirdly formal. Underneath the suspense is a concern that Shyamalan is setting us up for some kind of contrived cop-out. But without giving anything away, Signs' big twist is its lack of twist.

On "The X-Files," Fox Mulder's prized possession was a poster of a flying saucer and the words "I Want To Believe." Signs plays like a feature-length exploration of that theme, suggesting that believing in religious miracles and alien life forms requires a similar leap of faith. Signs leaves you looking warily to the heavens.

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