Thursday, December 8, 2016

SIGNS: The Reclamation of Faith in a Time of Crisis

There’s no real definitive exposition before the inciting incident. As soon as the film starts we’re thrown into the heart of it all: crop circles, bad water, rogue pets, and a new world that awaits the family Hess. It starts off like the famed alien invasion film framed through the eyes of a simple farm family but the aliens don’t operate like in this traditional narrative. Every single thing we learn about the Hess’s is seen through the lenses of post-traumatic anxiety. We never get to see them in a true state of normalcy but rather squeezed between the margins of tragedy that grow tighter as the film goes on. The drama and conflict never really steps outside the family. Even as the world ends around them, Hess’s deepest sorrows still lie with his departed wife and disillusioned children. His failure to protect their mother creeps back from the recesses of mind to manifest itself again and again as he realizes he might not be able to protect his children either. Bookended between a tragic past and a bleak future, Graham’s present is marred a total loss of faith: in man, and in god. 

And yet everything ends up in the right place in the end. Despite Graham’s warning that belief in miracles is only really valuable for the comfort it provides, every pain and hardship suffered by the family over the years factors into their survival against a rogue extra-terrestrial. Bo’s picky drinking habits lead to the ultimately lethal substance, water, being available anywhere in the house. Morgan’s asthma ends up closing his lungs when he's captured by the alien, preventing him from inhaling the poisonous gas. Colleen’s death and parting psychosis leads to Merrill’s eventual triumph over the alien with her final words "swing away". Each one of these is its own meticulously devised coincidence that ties back to Graham’s question. Are there divine forces working to protect us, giving us miracles: signs that they’re there, or is it all incidental? It probably doesn't matter, because what M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 horror film Signs demonstrates is the power of the reclaimed faith in times of crises, whether its consequences real or imagined. Graham recognizes, in the same conversation, that faith is really there for comfort and good mental health, not necessarily as a literal, divine protector. 

Signs works best because of it’s simplicity. It’s not just that Shyamalan mostly confines the events to a single farm-house and the small commercial space downtown. The down-scaling is obvious not just in the low-key acting but also the dialogue itself. Shyamalan seems to adore messing with these two elements, because wherein The Village a simple school teacher delivers a line like “What manner of spectacle has attracted your attention so splendidly”, a professor of science in Signs will deliver a line like “or basically…it’s for real” on live television. Even the central monologue given by Graham demonstrates the power of simplicity. It’s written as a series of simple sentences occasionally punctuated by a complex, two-clause sentence. These dedicated, stylish embellishments don’t just contribute to the atmospheric tension but contribute in coordination with Graham’s attempt to return to a past, simpler time. 

The sheer number of times that Graham Hess tries to protect his kids from learning that the world might be ending is as staggering as it is heart-breaking. The one thing he wants for his family is to return to the way things were, not before the advent of alien invasion but before the death of their mother. He constantly shields them from news, he tries to keep their minds occupied, and he even disregards and discounts their safety concerns when they do come up, not out of malice but out of fear. Similarly to the elders in 2004’s The Village, Hess is doing everything in his power to circumvent the stages of grief in an attempt to return to normalcy. He brings them to the town for an afternoon to try and alleviate the stress but only ends up adding fuel to the fire. The turning point is when Morgan hears the signal from above the car and Merrill surrenders all previous skepticism as Graham is left alone. What’s also telling is Graham wanting to sweep his family away from the family house to the lake, finally pulling the veil back on the true internal conflict of the family. The literal real danger of the aliens is not what causes the schism in the family dynamic, it’s the expository collective loss of Colleen. Graham mourns the loss by retreating from his faith, at first by denying the existence of the divine and then, in the cellar scene, being openly antagonistic towards God. The children and Merrill choose instead to stay with the memories of their mother at the farmhouse, even at danger to their lives. It’s an alien invasion film that really could have taken place without the invasion at all. 

The most fascinating part of Shyamalan’s depiction of faith is its general subjectivity. It’s not outright declaring the power of god ultimate as opposed to something like The Conjuring series, but rather the fate experienced is demonstrated as a series of coincidences that all happen to lead to the ending salvation. The most telling scene in the film is Merrill’s conversation with Graham after seeing the UFOs on television. When he asks for just a little comfort, Graham describes the dichotomy central to the film’s thesis. Some people look at the extraordinary and see miracles, knowing in their heart that some greater being is watching over them. Others look at the extraordinary and start assessing the outcomes, never letting go of the fear that agnosticism brings, that whatever might happen could bring something terrible, something tragic. In the end, neither group is held as genuinely correct but the hopeful miracle seekers are somewhat vindicated in their right to hold faith. Shyamalan recognizes that faith isn’t important because it has a measurable effect on anything in the real world but because of the internal health it brings to the faithful as well as it’s ability to foster and grow external relationships. His eternal sympathy, even for his antagonists and ideological opponents, keeps him from totally writing off their worldview, and maintains the film as one man’s extended conversation with god.

If one looks at the film as a depiction of a totally omnipotent God, who without question intervenes in the most direct ways, it can appear quite circular. A reverend loses his faith and later has it restored but a wife had to die in the process with no real change in his life. Conversely, if it’s viewed as a series of controlled coincidences that just happen to save four people from forces outside the control of the divine, it becomes a reflection on the healing power of faith. 

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