There was a time in American history when the debut of an M. Night Shyamalan film was an exciting thing, and Mel Gibson was widely respected. I know either of these things sounds like science fiction now, but there was a time when both were true; they came together in Signs. But M. Night went from making a few brilliant films to making truly awful films, and Mel’s off screen alcohol related antics revealed a dark side of his soul. But back in 2002, it was very exciting to see these two screen legends come together.
The film is very much like The War of the Worlds (there’s an explicit reference to that film in this film), but the story is told on a much more personal scale. Instead of seeing scientists, soldiers, and government officials plotting against the aliens from outer space, we see the invasion from the perspective of one family on a farm. (We do hear reports on the alien invasion from the TV and radio. At one point a newscaster states, “Hundreds of thousands have flocked to temples, synagogues and churches. God be with us all.”)
We don’t see a Movie Church in the film, but we do see what most people in the town near the farm believe is their clergyman. It’s only the pastor who doesn’t think they have a pastor. Gibson plays that pastor, Graham Hess. Six months before the film opens, Graham’s wife was killed in a traffic accident, and Graham can’t forgive God for taking her away. So he resigned from his pastorate, but everyone in town still calls him “Father.” (Apparently he was an Episcopal priest. We see a picture of Graham with a clerical collar with his wife and two children. We are never are told explicitly that he’s of the Anglican variety of denominations, but that’s our best guess.)
When the town’s constable, Officer Paski (Cherry Jones), comes to investigate strange happenings on the farm, crop circles, she calls Graham, “Father.” He says, “Caroline, please stop calling me ‘Father.’” Later, after more mysterious happenings, she asks Graham and his brother Merrill, “Do either of you have any grudges held against you? Maybe a church member that might not like the fact you left the church.” Graham can think of no one who would hold a grudge. As Paski leaves she says, “You take care of yourself… Graham.”
The clerk at the town drugstore still calls Graham Father, too. She says, “Father, I need to clear my conscience. Can I tell you something?”
Graham replies, “It’s not Father anymore. Tracey, I am not a reverend anymore. I haven’t been for six months. You know this.”
Tracey tells him, “Two girls were talking about the end of the world. I’m scared. Please, I need to clear my conscience.”
Graham eventually agrees to hear her confession. “I cursed 37 times last week I said the ‘F’ word a couple of times, but mostly… ‘s@#*s’ and ‘b#^&%#s’. Is ‘douche bag’ a curse?” He lets her know that in the context she used it, it is. “Then it’s not 37 times, it’s 71.” (Graham tells his children, “ I don’t want any of you spending time with Tracey Abernathy alone.”)
We see one other person in town call Graham ‘Father’-- the man (played by M. Night himself) who fell asleep at the wheel, killing Graham’s wife in a traffic accident. killed Graham’s wife in a traffic accident. He says, “I wrote down the number to call you six months ago. I meant to call you then, Father. I guess this is the end of the world. I’m screwed right? People who kill Reverend’s wives aren’t exactly ushered to the front of the line in Heaven. I know what I’ve done to you. Made you question your faith. I’m truly sorry for what I’ve done to you and yours.”
Graham just responds, “Alright.”
Graham may have taken off the collar, but he has a hard time shaking off the old life in some ways. When his brother, Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), asks him to help scaring what they think are rambunctious teens off the property, he asks Graham to yell and swear. “I don’t sound natural when I curse,” Graham says.
Learning to curse is one thing; giving up giving up prayer is another. The family, Graham, Merrill, Graham’s son, Morgan (Rory Culkin), and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin) gather around the table for what they fear may be their last supper before they are killed by aliens. Morgan says, “Maybe we should say a prayer.”
Graham says, “No! We’re not saying a prayer. I am not wasting one more moment of our life on prayer.” This brings his children to tears.
But Graham does eventually pray. I doubt it’s a prayer he ever used when leading a service. When he believes his child may die he prays, “Don’t do this to me again! I hate you!” God listens.
There is theological theme that weaves its way throughout the film and can be found in the title. Merrill goes to Graham looking for comfort in trying times.
Graham says you can look at events in the world and see God speaking through signs. Or you can believe everything happens by random chance and anything that looks like a sign or miracle from God is really a coincidence.
Merrill says he’s a miracle man. Graham says he’s not and that’s why he left the ministry.
I really like this film, but (spoiler) the final twist, the great weapon against the alien invaders is really silly. I would think aliens would prepare for the contingency they face in the film.
But the battle I care about in this film -- even more than the battle for Earth -- is the battle for Graham’s soul. Can he be a father to his children? Can he be a Father to the people of the town?
I’m afraid Graham as we see him in the film is just a Two Steeple Clergyman, because he does at least seek to be honest. But like Jonah, the reluctant preacher that emerges after this story might be quite effective.