|Mel Gibson||Father Graham Hess|
|Joaquin Phoenix||Merrill Hess|
|Directed by||M. Night Shyamalan|
In a week when a perhaps apocryphal 16th century Mexican Indian was canonized by the Pope, director M. Night Shyamalan achieved cinematic sainthood on the cover of Newsweek, where he was hailed as ?the next Spielberg?. Now according to Shyamalan, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who believe in coincidences, and those who believe in signs. Shyamalan does not believe in coincidences.
Shyamalan?s movie, which he wrote and directed, falls into a category we can term charismatic sci-fi thriller. It tells the tale of dour, humorless Father Graham Hess, played by Mel Gibson with his most appealing characteristics under wraps. Graham has lost his faith and resigned his ministry after his wife?s death in a freak auto accident. He lives in the midst of a vast ripe cornfield in Bucks County, PA, with his simple ex-ballplayer brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) and his two small children, Morgan (Rory Culkin) and Bo (Abigail Breslin). One morning they wake up to find the corn flattened into bizarre spheres, and the dogs acting funny.
Is it aliens ? Is it hoaxters ? Merrill opts for the latter : ?A bunch of nerds who can?t get girlfriends,? he opines. Merrill himself shows no sign of having a girlfriend. Indeed there is reason to think it might be the work of hoax artists, because the crop circles look remarkably like the ones created a couple of decades ago by pranksters. But the real story turns out to be far more apocalyptic. Shyamalan?s forte is atmospherics. He succeeded brilliantly with his third feature, "The Sixth Sense?, about a solemn boy who sees dead people. Here the same sensibility is at work - the offbeat camera angles, the heavy pregnant pauses, the heightened bursts of sound, the slithery presences at the edges of the frame, and even another solemn boy, who sees green people. But it feels choppier, less connected in a convincing fabric, and when a story such as this one fails to convince, it loses its power. To be truly scared, you have to buy into the reality of the situation. Otherwise, it?s all manipulation. If you find yourself counting the seconds between somebody asking a question and someone else delivering an answer, you?re not caught up in the moment.
There are other things to count, like the number of obvious influences on whom Shyamalan has drawn. ?The Birds?, ?Close Encounters of the Third Kind?, ?Night of the Living Dead?, ?Blood Simple?, ?The Panic Room?, ?The Blair Witch Project?, and even ?Field of Dreams? are just a few of the sources tapped. Cinematic homage can be a good thing, but here the sources are too scattered, and the effort seems to stop at the borrowing, without building the material into something greater.
The invasion of the aliens would seem to be the central focus of this movie, but it turns out to be window dressing for the real heart of the matter, which is its Christian theme: will Graham get his faith back ? Will he be redeemed from the fold of the doubters, the cynics, the empty, joyless people who believe in coincidences rather than the Divine Hand? ?There is no one watching out for us, Merrill,? he tells his brother, who looks at him with sad-eyed reproach. ?We are all on our own.? Shyamalan is intrigued with the three levels of fatherhood he explores here. Despite his retirement from the ministry, people keep addressing Graham as ?Father?, and he keeps correcting them ; with his faith exploded by his personal tragedy, he is no longer willing to act spiritually in loco parentis for the community. On a family level, he?s a caring father - at the opening, he wakes suddenly with the intuition that his kids are not in their beds, though he?s apparently slept through a massive landing of space ships right outside his window. But his distraction alienates his son, who screams ?I hate you !? at him at the dinner table. And in a parallel moment that packs all the delicate nuance of a pot roast, Graham screams the same indictment at the Heavenly Father. This, perversely, is probably the start of his redemption; you can?t hate what you don?t believe exists.
For all of his deftness with style, Shyamalan handles his story here like an Attention Deficit Disordered child deprived of Ritalin. He?ll start to build some suspense, tire of that direction, and skip to something else. He scatters the film with boo! moments, maguffins, and jokes. When he finally gets to the aliens, he?s become so distracted by his spiritual message that it looks as though he just sent a grip down to Party City for an alien costume. You?ve seen more imagination from trick-or-treaters. Phoenix and the little children are effective, and there is wonderful work from Cherry Jones, surely one of America?s great actresses, who specializes in the theater and may want to hurry back there. Shyamalan appears in an extended cameo as the local vet who has had a negative impact on the Hess family. Gibson is always fun to watch, but here, with the twinkle systematically doused in his eye, he?s less fun than usual.
© Text 2002 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be