I can safely say that M. Night Shyamalan is one of the smartest filmmakers working today. I only fear that his smarts are going to get him into trouble.
Before I digress, I'll write of the movie as much as I dare. The script was extremely solid. I mean, SOLID. Only the ending suffered from being over explained, with five lines under the theme to make sure you got it when you walked out of the theatre. That cheapened what power it might have had. I'm sure it wouldn't bother me as much on a subsequent viewing.
What I felt to be the greatest strength was the use of television reports to portray events happening outside of the characters. It never leaves their point of view, and that makes events that may have seemed hokey much more realistic, even when they flirted with the fantastic. One particularly strong scene is just one character reacting very strongly to something that he has just seen on television, waiting in horrible anticipation for confirmation of his (and the audience's fear). The memory of September 11th is strong here.
The acting was great. The cinematography was great. It created moments of genuine suspense that I dare to say will not be topped anytime soon.
As I think about how perfect the whole thing was, I am reminded of The Road To Perdition ("review"), which also had numerous contributions that resulted in a flawless execution.
And well... I don't like things being that perfect. And that is a personal and completely subjective criticism that will not go down completely with many of you. However, this does inform my point of view when seeing a movie/film, so take it or leave it.
Every shot is perfectly composed. One can tell that storyboards were used extensively before shooting. Should I notice this? I don't think so, especially when it is going for a rather naturalistic tone, to bring something that has been mostly served previously by serious and hokey science fiction. This is a thriller, first and foremost, and the overwhelming focus being held on the family and its progression in the grand scheme of things is the most welcome aspect of the movie.
Rarely does a filmmaker trust his/her own judgment and the attention of the audience this much. I would have expected another to cut away from the focus of the story, which is this small family living on the farm. Night does understand that less is more. I only wished he had applied that reasoning to the framework in which he paid off the conclusion.
Make no bones about it: This is Shyamalan's show. One gets the sense that he dictated every single detail that is present in the movie. Is this good? Yes... and no. Usually the great creations of art are born of friction: the actor adding additional shades to a role, the cinematographer shooting things in a certain way, the stamp of the writer being different from what the director might see it as. When I watched Signs, I felt that every emotion, every shot, every fraction was dictated and executed to Night's high standards. This is good... but it makes the whole affair seem a little too calculated.
A minor gripe, and many films have been ruined by collaboration just as others have been elevated, but in this case it keeps a great movie from being a classic. I'll give him time though... he really is the only director who has had a consistant standard of quality in recent memory.
Addentum: A friend pointed out the Coen Brothers and Wachowski Brothers have also maintained a high standard of quality. Are there any others you can think of? Comment below.