Oh, those evangelical Christian filmmakers. Not content with just serving their niche market, now they've got the hot writer-director M. Night Shyamalan, who isn't even a Christian, making films for them. "Signs," his third major feature after "The Sixth Sense" and "Unbreakable," is, let's be frank, the story of how a man of the collar who lost his faith when his wife was killed in a freak auto accident, regains it thanks to - well, let's just say an otherworldly agent.
Mel Gibson is that man. He farms what is surely the largest acreage of corn in Bucks County, Pa., though I was not able to spot anything resembling farm equipment or even a barn, anywhere in the film; when one night - yes, one night - those mysterious crop circles appear that you've been seeing in the movie's trailers. I know you've been asking, along with the rest of us, what are they? Well, I'm not gonna tell, because that's the mystery in the film. But would it help if I said that this film is a cross between "Night of the Living Dead" and "The War of the Worlds?" Like a pitcher with nothing but a fastball, Shyamalan has gone to the well once too often and made a film that is, sadly, to laugh at.
That's not his intention, of course, and there are many superb things in the film. One of them is Mel Gibson, who shows serious acting chops as Father Graham Hess (he wears a Roman collar but is, we should assume, either Episcopalian or Eastern Orthodox), the man without a faith. Gibson is always at his best in offbeat films, like "The Road Warrior" and "Conspiracy Theory," and he holds the screen here with power and charisma. 12-year-old Rory Culkin, who plays his son Morgan, is astonishingly good in a difficult role, as are Joaquin Phoenix as Graham's strange younger brother, a former minor league ballplayer who lives next door, and little Abigail Breslin, the baby of the family.
And the family itself is strange. They are not heroes, they are superstitious, they are easily frightened - Gibson plays against his movie-hero image here - and they are funny. Often laugh-out-loud funny, which in the context of the film is a good thing. They bumble, stumble, and stay well within the boundaries of a conventional family. They are the best thing in the film.
What doesn't work is the actual plot of "Signs." I will honor the unwritten code and not give it away, but merely suggest that if you go you would do well to focus on the performances, because the plot is excruciatingly bad. Mr. Shyamalan needs to develop another pitch, and quickly.