The Sixth Sense (1999, M. Night Shyamalan)


Spoiler alert: that dandily insightful child psychologist played by the guy from Hudson Hawk is actually dead. I know, I know, I ruined it for you — now you know how I felt as a budding teenage film fan when Peter Travers gave the game away in regard to The Sixth Sense in the pages of Rolling Stone, a magazine I then read — you won’t judge me, right? — religiously. Like other people who knew the entire layout of M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough hit before it hit the video store in early 2000, I always saw the film a bit differently than those who approached it as fresh, innocent moviegoers. This has made three things happen: it gave me an appreciation of the film’s rich visual style; it gave me a somewhat painful awareness of the movie’s many minor but irksome little plot holes, and it gave me some feeling — if you’ll pardon the rather presumptuous way this is going to sound — that the film is not really about dead people, ghosts or plot twists. In a way, I feel as if I’ve had a more lasting enjoyment of The Sixth Sense because it was never “about” the ending to me.

Not that I wouldn’t have loved what I’m sure was a pretty wondrous theatrical experience — accounts from friends suggest that the audible feeling of shock at the film’s finale was something to remember. Perhaps it was too much, even: Steven Spielberg, years earlier, talked about the temptation to get every possible scare that he could into Jaws and lamented that the urge to push everything further numbed the impact of the film itself. In this case, it’s more a question of the movie’s ability to desensitize an audience and make them savvier to a filmmaker’s mischief. Shyamalan would arguably never get away with the big switcheroo again, but he shot himself in the foot in a less obvious way: by making his big hat trick in The Sixth Sense so pronounced, he sent armies of people to his next three efforts in hope of a giant mindfuck, which hurt their popularity.

All told, I don’t think The Sixth Sense is as brilliant or haunting a film as Unbreakable or The Village, but it’s equally elegant. Shyamalan is a good emotional communicator — when his characters feel cold, literally and otherwise, so do we. More than simply reading alienation, dread, fear, we feel a connection. Aside from a few slightly gimmicky shots (the one that frames Bruce Willis and Olivia Williams as reflections inside a plaque, for instance), he’s outstanding at composition and blocking — he knows how to use sets, staging, even shadow to communicate openness, despair, and most often menace. Even if the film were about something entirely different, there would be a sideways anguish to the lengthy take in which Cole’s mother (Toni Collette) races hurriedly around the house and reenters the kitchen to discover that her son has somehow opened all of the drawers and cabinets in a matter of seconds; the moment when Cole is asked to step closer to or farther from his doctor each time the compassionate but crucially failed psychologist expresses a hit or a miss about the boy’s makeup; and Cole’s comical-then-terrifying taunting of a clueless teacher. Shyamalan knows how to frame these things to make something seem “off,” foreboding, uneasy.

The photography by Tak Fujimoto manages both eeriness and warmth, but generally appears in an arid and off-balance environment, heavy on the oppressively bleak colors of a troubled childhood. (Shyamalan’s script requires ghostly sequences to be covered in red.) But because this is no more a horror film in reality than the director’s subsequent trio of legendarily divisive fumbles, it also resists the typical iconography of the genre — it isn’t Gothic or fantastic or even particularly “dark” in any meaningful sense, campy or otherwise. Instead, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or (especially) George Romero’s thematically similar Martin, it takes pains to appear to be occurring in our own lonely, messed up world. Most of its major scenes take place in apartments, schools or churches — there’s occasionally a car or a funeral, and a sojourn to what seems a psychodrama of a failing marriage. Watching it is somehow akin to being a kid, shuttled around from place to place by working parents. Cole (a surprisingly cranky, demented Haley Joel Osment) is an urban kid — a mythical, nearly invisible creature in American cinema — but the actual promises and enormity of a city like Philadelphia for a precocious and intellectually curious kid are invisible to him. He can only look inward, and therein lies both Shyamalan’s point and the insight it affords him about not just schizophrenia or, if you like, “seeing dead people” but the life of the introvert in general.

Osment’s performance is a beautiful thing: troubling, curt, unsentimental, and agreeably enigmatic; the film identifies with him but is careful to keep our sympathies mostly with Willis’ passionate workaholic Dr. Crowe, who sees the boy not as a puzzle to solve but as a boy whose troubles are all too clearly a reflection of the doctor’s own past failings. The most haunting moment of Willis’ performance occurs when, emotionally invested in the boy, he speaks outside into a tape recorder about the previously unnoticed depth and hopelessness of what he then believes to be Cole’s sickness. Willis taps into a sensitivity here that he’s seldom revealed since caterwauling outside Maddie’s front door on Moonlighting. Always by far the most sensitive and intelligent of the bigtime ’90s action stars, he magnificently rehumanizes himself here. The performance of the picture, nevertheless, is Toni Collette’s; the sublime car sequence, wherein Cole at last reveals his “secret” to his mother, is about as emotionally crushing a parent-child scene as I’ve seen in any film, and Collette fully sells the skepticism-then-acceptance required of the moment. (Olivia Williams, though decent in her role, is depressingly under-utilized, as she so often was during this period.)

So bunk to the notion that this falls apart once you know the closing twist — that awareness only emphasizes how much it’s a story about communication breakdowns, between parents and children, husbands and wives, doctors and patients; its cautious hopefulness is the best we can expect from a modern fable, really. Sixth Sense can have its central gimmick. It can even have its logical problems — why the hell is Bruce Willis sitting in the room inexplicably when Cole arrives home from school? How’d he get there? And if no one knows they’re dead, why are some thirsting for revenge? Why would he say “I thought you meant the other Italian restaurant where we had our first date” if he couldn’t have had that conversation to begin with? It matters, sure, but in retrospect the film’s primary utility isn’t as a ghost story; it’s no less trite than most of them in that regard. But as a metaphorically stirring glimpse at the loneliness of mental illness, the loneliness of a failing marriage, the loneliness of life itself — there may be no other blockbuster film with its resonance.

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