M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense proved to be one of the most intriguing films of the 1990’s. Telling a conventional ghost story in an unconventional way, the film featured many strong elements and was a surprising dark horse entry at the Oscars. It has since placed on many ‘best of’ lists and has been parodied and copied insistently.
But how does it stand today?
Most thrillers are enjoyable the first time but fail to impress upon a second viewing; once its secrets and twists are known, most feel rather tedious. The Sixth Sense, however, is the exact opposite: one doesn’t realise how good it is until it ends, and a second viewing only proves the excellence behind the film’s craft.
The film is about Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a much lauded child therapist who is attempting to treat troubled Cole Sear. Though the film doesn’t come out with it at first, all of the promotional material and reviews were quick to make Cole’s problem known: he sees ghosts, leading him to emotionally disconnect with his ‘reality’. With this are the subplots involving Crowe’s marriage, which appears to be on the brink due to a traumatic incident that begins the film, and Cole’s mother as she tries to understand her son.
Good ghost stories are not about major special effects and scares. Instead, they are about atmosphere and sorrow. Ghosts linger because of unfinished business, not to ‘haunt’ the babysitter or cause mayhem in a house. The film focuses on Cole’s attempts to come to grips with his ‘gift’ rather than serving up gratuitous scares. In fact, there aren’t many ‘scary’ scenes, but there is an overwhelming feeling of dread and foreboding.
And it has one of the best ‘trick endings’ ever captured on film. I first saw it the afternoon of its first day of release. We in the audience knew what the film was about, but no one knew anything about the twist, and when it came, the entire audience gasped as one before falling completely silent, save for one woman who loudly proclaimed ‘No way’.
There was a buzz that quickly spread about the film. What was thought to be a possible ‘save it for video’ movie by the end of its first weekend in release had become a must-see event, and all of the big summer films that were the focus of most film discussions (Phantom Menace, Austin Powers 2, Blair Witch, The Matrix, to name but a few iconic films from that summer) became forgotten, with all of the talk focused on the question: did you figure the ending out? Most hadn’t, myself included.
It’s been a decade since the film was released, and it has matured rather nicely. Even when one knows every plot turn, the film is still compelling and manages to be affecting. Having knowledge of the twists allows one to appreciate all of the clues that the film supplies, clues that are blatantly obvious but most choose to ignore the first time around. One can also focus on the interesting choices director Shyamalan and cinematographer Tak Fujimoto have made, especially the use of reflections, religious symbolism and the continuing motif with the colour red.
The most surprising aspect of the film is in its performances. At the time, much had been made about Haley Joel Osment, but this is probably the best performance Bruce Willis has ever given. Osment and Willis’s scenes are wonderful, full of emotional depth that one wouldn’t expect from a child actor and an action star. Osment shows far more focus than most child actors have ever conveyed on film, and Willis’s undercurrent of torment and regret make for a compelling performance that he has never equalled.
But it isn’t until the second viewing that one realises how vital the two female leads, Toni Collette as Cole’s mother and Olivia Williams as Malcolm’s neglected wife, are to the film. While Osment and Willis have to carry the plot, it’s down to Collette and Williams to serve as the emotional epicentre, carrying the film’s most difficult aspects.
The Sixth Sense has many things: brilliant performances, surprising plot twists and a relentless atmosphere. It may be remembered as one of the most affecting ghost stories Hollywood ever produced with its focus on character and emotional connection rather than special effects. And it has ‘that’ ending. It is a film more than worthy of being remembered and celebrated, and I would be greatly surprised if it didn’t achieve ‘classic’ status in the next few years to come, if it hasn’t already.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray. Also currently showing on Sky Movies.
*Modern Potentials is a column giving a second review of films 10-20 years old. Though it will usually be fortnightly, I am writing 2-3 a week for the first month to start it up. Future features will include Eyes Wide Shut, American Beauty, Fight Club, Edward Scissorhands, LA Confidential, The Usual Suspects, Trainspotting and other films either sitting in my DVD collection or playing somewhere. Any suggestions? Drop a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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