by Ed Symkus

I haven't seen the first two, barely released films by the writer-director with the hard-to-pronounce last name. But among his later hits (The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable) and now Signs, I can easily say that he's three for three. Yes, it's hat trick time for the India-born, Philadelphia-raised filmmaker, who likes to feature brooding men as his leads (Bruce Willis in the first two, Mel Gibson in the new one). Shyamalan clearly prefers a slow pace, broken up from time to time by a good old-fashioned shock or two (all three films have glorious group shocks -- the kind that make every member of the audience involuntarily leave their seat at the same moment). Oh, and he likes to add a little twist at the end.

That last part is something that may become a problem, at least if he does it again next time around. The endings of these three films have been very different, but they do at least resemble each other, providing an unexpected piece of plotting right near the end. They all work well in providing an extra little punch, but the idea worked best in The Sixth Sense. With the twist at the end of Signs, Shyamalan might have gone to the well one too many times.

But that's about all of the complaining that will be leveled here. Signs is the best film he's made yet -- a creepy, entertaining piece of cinema that freely borrows from a couple of masterpieces in the creepy, entertaining canon (both The War of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead come to mind). But unlike his previous films, the story is told in a much more straightforward manner, without excess tangents sticking out and adding to the confusion.

Then again, it's not just straightforward. The film opens at a fever pitch. Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) wakes up suddenly, alone in bed, mid-day, and runs out of the house toward his isolated Pennsylvania cornfield. At the same time, his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), goes through the same routine in the house right next door, both of them meeting up at the field, where they discover two things: the big stalks have been flattened out into what from above looks like a series of circles and lines, and the two farm dogs are running around barking their heads off.

Not long after that, Graham's two young kids (Rory Culkin, Abigail Breslin) are introduced, looks of concern etched on their faces, and one of the dogs starts behaving very strangely.

"Some animals around the county acting funny," drawls one of the local cops.

And before long there are noises in the dark, and quick glimpses of people -- or are they? -- in shadows, but no one to be found. There's no clue as to what's going on, but there's no doubt that something is wrong.

It's up to Shyamalan to do some explaining. And he does so on many levels. A little background is eventually given to each of the four major characters, enough to plant a few seeds of thought about Merrill and plenty about Graham. Mysteriously, many people around town keep addressing him as "Father."

It turns out that the huge flattened area -- or crop sign -- in his field is one of many suddenly being sighted around the world. What's going on here? Is it an alien invasion? Is it a hoax? How could something this widespread be a hoax?

Shyamalan terrifically sets up a feeling of mass paranoia, but focuses it all on the broken and suffering family unit on that Pennsylvania farm. And, amazingly, he also gives the film some very funny dialogue and even a couple of scenes of physical comedy, often right after something fairly grim. Then he turns everything around with feelings of unrelenting fear, exacerbated by the fact that there's no music -- just an ambient, whooshing sort of sound accompanying the picture.

As for the title -- well, those big circles aren't the only Signs. Shyamalan has packed his film with foreshadowings, unknowable until a second viewing. And those mysterious signs will surely induce paranoia in viewers of this riveting movie.

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