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Signs And The Man

Dr. Roy John

For those of you who might have momentarily taken your ear off the ground, Manoj Shyamalan’s new movie “Signs” is the buzz-word among moviegoers of late. With Box office collections surpassing 200 million dollars within a month of its release, it looks like another Shyamalan project that will have Disney laughing all the way to the bank. The movie’s success has the Indian born writer-director rapidly escalating the Hollywood greasy pole to be touted the next Spielberg. Love it or loathe it, one thing is for sure: Shyamalan’s film-making is undoubtedly distinctive, albeit laden with soul searching supernatural themes and delivered with almost angstful brooding.

  To the Indian born reader of this forum, Shyamalan’s background maybe of some interest. Gathered from various recent publications, it goes thus: born in Pondicherry to physician parents, Shyamalan has lived in Philadelphia since infancy. As a child, he apparently reveled in making up stories, began making films at the age of 10 with his father’s 8mm camera, and by age 16, had made 45 short films. He was accepted to medical school but instead chose to attend the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. His middle name Nelliote, was traded in for the more media friendly “Night”, reflective of the darkness that is prevalent in some of his work.  Shyamalan’s two initial ventures, Praying with Anger and Wide Awake in Philadelphia failed to register commercially.  Nevertheless, they garnered sufficient recognition of his talent - Praying with Anger, shot in Chennai, was named the Debut Film of the Year at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in 1993. His next project, a story apparently based on his own childhood fears about ghosts evolved into the blockbuster “Sixth Sense”. The rest, needless to say, is history.

  Shyamalan’s latest film Signs, once again based on his own script, embraces spirituality – a theme that probably springs from his Indian background and one that will sit well with the average Asian viewer. The central premise is inherently distracting but mercifully relegated to the background. Instead, skillful acting and carefully created nuances has the audience leaning forward intently: listening, watching, almost craving for the next scene. For the weekend moviegoer, jaws will ache from the suspense and the silence could be deafening. Aptly timed humorous quips offer some relief but the movie keeps building up to the end. The end, in the end, is where Shyamalan gets the last laugh. There is no payoff but a mere shrug of resignation in recognition of the power of faith and family.


  Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson lives on the farm with his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his children Morgan and Bo (Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin). There is an old-fashioned farmhouse and barn, and wide cornfields, and from the very first shot there seems to be something strange out there. Dogs bark and behave in an aberrant fashion, strange figures emerge on rooftops and the wind howls incessantly.  Hess waits and observes in anxious anticipation. One night, he even catches a glimpse of something in a cornfield. All is revealed in good time even if not to the viewer’s satisfaction. Graham Hess is the protective father to his naively brave kids, in a house filled with a deep and resigned sadness (awaiting the end of the world?). Any more of this and I will have given the critical pieces of the puzzle away. The story is best left for the reader to unravel at the cinema.  As in the Sixth Sense, Shyamalan choreographs a limited but superb cast to dance to his tune. It is good to see Mel Gibson abandoning the chest thumping rah-rah image of his recent movies such as Braveheart and Patriot. Instead, this is a more flawed, tortured, and sympathetic Gibson than we’ve seen in quite some time.  Joaquin Phoenix offers a terrific supporting performance bringing the necessary touch of family devotion and plain old common sense.


  In these days of Hollywood movies crammed with ear shattering special effects, and crass dialogues, Signs stands out like a crop sign in a cornfield, meticulously crafted and distinctive; a welcome departure to the quiet days of Hitchcock, drama, and suspense. While the purist may choose to dismiss Signs as an X-Files pilot venture, to the average moviegoer, it can be a refreshing throwback to old-fashioned cinema with emphasis on clean dialogue, polished acting and masterful directing.  As for Shyamalan, his reliance on the supernatural theme is getting somewhat tedious and he risks the danger of being typecast as such. I can only hope that the man picks up on the signs to channel his talents toward the earthly issues that vex the mere mortal.


About the author
Dr Roy John, Cardiologist, Film and Media enthusiast, writes from Concord, MA where he lives with his wife and two sons.

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