Thursday, April 15, 2021

Dad and Chad vs. Aliens

Of M. Night Shyamalan’s films, Signs is one of my favorites. I saw the film when it was released in theaters in 2002, and when it was recently made available on streaming, I gave it a rewatch. In this essay, I’ll examine how male social hierarchies are depicted in the film.

Overall, Signs is an excellent film, although it does have some flaws. Shyamalan excels at Lovecraftian horror, both in the writing and behind the camera. I particularly like his use of slow-disclosure shots, which are effective in heightening suspense.

One thing that Shyamalan’s not that good at is writing humor, and I thought the extensive use of humor detracted from this film. Humor is subjective, and one man’s laugh-out-loud funny is another man’s cringe, but I have a couple of specific beefs against the use of humor in this film.

The first is that humor is inserted into a scene that is otherwise meant to be horrific, undercutting the tension and suspense that the director is trying to build. The scene occurs early in the film, when the Hess brothers (played by Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix) hear a noise outside their house one evening. Thinking this to be the neighborhood pranksters, they plan to rush outside and surprise them. Merrill urges that they shout and curse as they run around the house. What follows is a drawn-out and tedious joke where Graham protests that he can't curse convincingly. It isn't that funny, but it does dissipate the scene's built-in tension. (I discuss this general subject in more detail in my essay on humor in the book Pulp on Pulp.)

Another is that humor is used to denigrate the story’s two male protagonists.

In my previous essay on male social hierarchies in anime, I discussed how some anime creators portray male authority figures (especially Father Figures) and high-status males in a negative light: they are portrayed either as tyrants, weaklings, or buffoons. This probably reflects the writer’s resentments towards male social hierarchies his real life experience. For most writers of this type, this negative portrayal is sufficient, but other writers also feel the need to subject the character to a humiliation.

In the film, Graham Hess plays the role of the Father Figure, and Merrill Hess, a former high school jock, plays the role of the Rival. Throughout the film, Shyamalan subjects both characters to a series of humiliations.

Graham Hess is an extraordinarily weak character and his broken state is a major subplot of the story. As a result of his wife’s tragic death, Hess has fallen into a spiritual and emotional crisis. He has lost his faith in God and as left his position as a pastor. He has reached a point where he can no longer exert authority over his children and his son Morgan treats him with contempt.

In an incident early in the film, the Hess brothers, hearing a child screaming, rush out into the cornfield. There they find Morgan, who appears to be in a state of shock. The boy wants to direct his father’s attention to where the corn stalks have been pressed into a giant circle. Rather than point in that direction, as most people would do, Morgan grabs his father by the jaw and turns his head. This is an act of dominance and disrespect.

Probably the most painful display of Graham Hess’s weakness comes in the latter part of the film, after he learns from the veterinarian that the lake is a refuge from the aliens. When Hess returns home, rather than announcing that they are going to flee to the lake, he puts it up a a vote. The children vote to remain at the house. Hess, dissatisfied with this result, tries to regain control. In the ensuing argument, his young son completely dominates him and they remain at the house. I found this scene to be incredibly painful.

The plot requires that the Hess family not go to the lake but remain at the house, so they can have the final showdown with the aliens. But any competent writer could have arrived at that outcome in a number of ways, without subjecting the viewer to the spectacle of Hess’s argument with his son. For example, the aliens could have sabotaged the car, leaving the Hess family stranded at the house. Shyamalan’s a smart writer and easily could have penned an alternative. That he wrote the scene the way he did indicates that it appealed to him.

If Graham Hess is categorized at the Father Figure, then his younger brother Merrill is categorized as the Rival, the high-status male who successfully competes with other males for women and resources. Merrill was a popular jock in high school, but now he's down on his luck.

Merrill also gets his share of humiliations. The first comes at the kitchen table, where he is humiliated by the female police officer. Later on in the story, when Merrill is at the recruiting station, he is humiliated again when another character, speaking off-camera, reminds him of his failures as a minor league baseball player. When this other character is revealed, his appearance is that of the cool, charismatic Rebel. Before he leaves the station, Merrill tries to physically intimidate this man and fails miserably.

One telling scene regarding the writer’s attitude towards Merrill is when Merrill is speaking with his nephew in the car. Merrill believes that the mysterious events are the work of pranksters: “Morgan, this crop stuff is about a bunch of nerds who never had a girlfriend in their lives.” That dialogue is just a bit too much on the nose not to be reflective of real-world resentments.

The other male authority figures in the film, while making only brief appearances, are presented in an unflattering light as well. At the recruiting station, the sergeant first class, whose status as an authority figure is signified by the prominent display of his rank insignia, is presented as a paranoid kook. The bookshop owner is portrayed as a kook as well. In contrast, the bookshop owner’s wife is depicted as a normal and reasonable person. The only authority figure who’s portrayed positively is the female police officer, who is shown as noble, wise, and kind. She is a stand-in for the film's executive producer, Kathleen Kennedy.

Some would argue that the portrayal of Graham Hess is necessary. His fallen state and subsequent redemption are a major subplot of the film. I would argue that Shyamalan could have presented Hess in a broken state without subjecting him to so many humiliations. The humiliations that Shyamalan visits upon his male protagonists are gratuitous and vindictive.

But the Hess brothers are redeemed in the end. In the film’s thrilling and well-written climax, they get their mojo back and defeat the alien. Graham Hess reconciles with his son and returns to the Church. A satisfying and happy ending. Does this mean that Shyamalan has empathy for these characters? Does Shyamalan actually like Dad and Chad? Perhaps. But there are a couple of other ways to look at it.

One is economic. Hollywood has learned, through decades of screen testings and box office receipts, that American audiences expect a happy ending. So, Shyamalan may have simply produced what he knew both the studio and the audience expected.

There’s another angle as well. Years ago, I watched a film which had a steady drip-drip of subtle, subversive messaging sprinkled throughout the story. In contrast, the ending had a strong, uplifting, traditional message. So Hollywood does do that sort of thing. When this happens, is the strong, positive message intended to refute or negate everything that came before it, or is it there merely as camouflage? And all those subtle, subversive messages don’t really go away. They’re still there, rattling around in the viewer’s subconscious mind.

The subplot is not just about the redemption of Graham Hess, but about relationships within the family and, to a lesser extent, the larger community. It is not a pretty picture. Relationships are broken, awkward, and conflictual. The attempts at humor are without warmth and serve only to bring people down, as well as make subtle digs at Graham Hess's Christian faith. The dialogue is peppered with clumsy moments such as Merrill's remarks about nerds or the sergeant's remark about sucking toes. Real people don't talk like that. The film provides a glimpse of what Shyamalan, the outsider, thinks of fly-over America.

For me, probably the most puzzling thing about Signs was the casting of Mel Gibson for the role of such a pathetically weak character like Graham Hess. Gibson, with all his rugged masculinity, is a natural choice to play the role of the testosterone-filled alpha male. In casting him for this role, was Shyamalan trolling Gibson and all the men that Gibson represents?

If you’re an author and would like to read my essays on narrative patterns and techniques, check out the book Pulp on Pulp, edited by Kit Sun Cheah and Misha Burnett. It’s available on Amazon for 99 cents and for free on other platforms.

1 comment:

  1. I saw Signs years ago in the theatre and thought it was one of the best sci fi horror films post-1989. I remember that Mel Gibson's character was broken-up about his wife's death and that he was kind of falling apart, I just don't remember him being so weak in his character. It's been so long since I've watched the movie that I've forgotten a lot of details. In fact, I can't even remember the brother in that movie! I'll have to rent that on one of the streaming services and watch it again. You have a really good and well thought-out analysis of this film. In my opinion, it's actually one of Shyamalan's best films since it doesn't over-rely on irony in the ending like so many of his other movies do (movies that depend too much on the ending's irony to where a person doesn't find them watchable a second time). But I'm not sure what you mean by the director being an outsider. An outsider to what?