Faith is a precarious thing. It is something that is different things to different people, and is manifested by people in many ways. There are those that base their lives upon faith and those who have little left. One such person is Graham Hess (Mel Gibson), a former preacher, and widowed father of two who is about to face his greatest test in the new M.Night Shyamalan thriller “Signs”.

Hess is struggling to make sense of the tragic and needless death of his wife six months past, and has left the ministry behind as the loss of his wife has eroded all the faith he had, and left him a sad and bitter man. His sons Morgan (Rory Culkin), and daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), are his sole reason for being and with the help of his brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix); Hess is able to provide a comfortable if lonely lifestyle in a rural area near Philadelphia.

That is until Hess and his family discover a series of bizarre patterns in their cornfield and notice odd behavior from the family pets. At first Hess liens this to an illness in the animals and some local playing pranks on him for leaving the priesthood, but soon odd sounds and visitors that they can hear but move to fast to be seen start to interrupt their lives. Local Officer Paski (Cherry Jones) attributes the disturbance to a couple of strangers in town whom have not been seen recently and advises the family to take some time off in town. Before leaving to the town, the Hess family learns via the television that odd crop formations have been appearing all over India and are spreading all over the world at an alarming rate. Young Morgan’s claims of it being a forecast of an alien invasion are scoffed at until an even stranger series of events happens and strange lights begin to appear in the skies over major cities.

Before long, Graham is faced with having to deal with the series revelation that he and his family may be in grave danger and the very survival of the human race may be at stake.

It is at this point that the film makes a bold and very rewarding move. Instead of becoming a big FX based us versus the monster ala “ID 4”, Shyamalan pulls the film in even closer and makes it an intense character driven story that is pulled off very well by the cast. The tension mounts and the fact that what is menacing the family is not shown clearly only adds to the tension, we know something is there, but like the Hess family, we never see or learn more than they do and this greatly adds to the tension of the film. This could have become a disaster in the hands of a weaker director but Shyamalan proves that he is one of the most gifted talents in film as he wrote, directed, produced, and stared in a small but vital supporting role in the film. Gibson is solid in his role as he portrays Hess as a broken man who has given up on everything in the world but his children and struggles to grasp the situation that he finds himself in, as many of us would indeed do so. Gibson plays Hess with a vulnerability and flawed persona that shows him as a regular guy rather than the larger than life characters we have become accustomed to seeing and as he did in “We Were Soldiers”, Gibson shows once again that he is truly a versatile and gifted actor who is confident to let his character and acting rather than his looks, humor and FX carry the film.

There was some good humor in the film and Phoenix does well blending the humor of his role with seriousness when it is required, it was easy to believe and care for this family, as they were not a stock Hollywood film family. Shyamalan cleverly avoids falling into some of the standard traps of films of this type as the audience like the characters are constantly kept in the dark. The tension mounts as the film goes on, and the nerves of more than a few people in the audience were becoming frazzled. To me, “Signs” evoked memories of classic episodes of the “Twilight Zone” where the human drama and imagined fear carried the story rather than an array of FX. It was very refreshing to see, and is one of the more pleasant surprises of the summer. As he did with “The Sixth Sense” Shyamalan has tapped into our subconscious fears and unleashed a gripping and cerebral thriller that does not tidy everything up in a nice simple package and will scare some and make you think.

5 stars out of 5