M. Night Shyamalan knows what scares us. It scares him, too.
As in “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” writer/producer/director Shyamalan’s latest is a story of a crisis of faith, a wise child, and something out there that is very, very disturbing but ultimately part of a pattern that supports and embraces all of us.
Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a recent widower who lives with his two children and his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix) on a farm in Pennsylvania. He had been a minister, but lost his faith when his wife was killed. Now he winces when people call him “Father.”
He wakes up one night with a sense of dread. His children are not in bed. He runs out into the cornfield and his children show him that the stalks have been bent into a mysterious pattern. It can’t have been made by a machine, because the stalks are not broken. And it can’t have been done by hand, because the shapes are too perfectly even.
It turns out that the strange signs have appeared all over the world. Graham wants to believe that the shapes are a prank or a hoax. He cannot bear the thought that his family could be vulnerable to more injury or loss.
Gibson is outstanding in a role that calls for subtlety, maturity, and a mixture of vulnerability and strength. The children, played by Rory Culkin and Abigail Breslin, are just right. They act like smart kids who know what loss is and are scared but also tantalized by what is going on around them. Shyamalan’s skills as a director are getting stronger and stronger. His use of the camera to tell the story is masterful. There is a moment when the screen goes completely black that had the audience gasping. He has clearly been paying attention to Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg, and has a few tricks of his own to contribute. His only mistake is in leaving too little to the imagination. Like his characters, he likes to have everything explained.
Parents should know that this movie has extreme tension and peril, though it is not graphic or gory. Some audience members will find it very scary. Some will be comforted by its ultimate conclusion, but others will find it disappointing, even sugary or superficial. They might even be offended at its deterministic take on things.
Families who see this movie should talk about whether they see patterns and purpose in what occurs around them and what it means to them. Where do people find their faith? What kind of person says that it doesn’t feel right not to swing? They might also want to look at websites like this one to find out more about efforts to contact life on other planets.
Families who enjoy this movie will enjoy more benign stories about contact with aliens: Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Contact. They may also want to try the very creepy The Others and one of the scariest movies ever, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers.