The Sixth Sense, 1999.
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
Starring Bruce Willis, Hayley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams and Donnie Wahlberg.
A child psychologist, seeking to redeem himself after failing a past patient, attempts to help a young boy who claims he can see the dead.
It’s easy to poke fun at writer/director M. Night Shyamalan nowadays. After an early peak of critically acclaimed hits, came a steep fall that saw him churn out several critically derided bombs that live on as cult hits for their unintentional hilarity or for people to look at and wonder: ‘what the hell happened?’. So as he seems to be enjoying a revival of fortunes (although the reaction to Old suggests he still has some ways to go), let’s go back to that early success that turned him into a household name; the hugely successful horror/drama The Sixth Sense.
When released back in 1999, The Sixth Sense was a juggernaut that achieved massive critical and commercial success, Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) and the honour of becoming a near-instant pop culture mainstay that had everyone proclaiming: ‘I see dead people’. However, after 20 years and after Shyamalan’s reputation has taken such a kicking, does it still hold up? The short answer; yes.
The story of The Sixth Sense, concerning a young boy confronted by ghostly spirits, sounds like a typical supernatural horror story. However, to describe The Sixth Sense as a horror film is not entirely accurate. In reality, the film is more of a character-based drama (a description by Shyamalan himself subscribes to) about loneliness, grief and overcoming trauma, albeit one with spine-tingling supernatural elements.
The horror elements are of secondary nature, with the scares being relatively far and few between. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a few unsettling moments. The infamous ‘I see dead people’ speech still packs a creepy punch even after 20 years. I especially found the moment where Cole (Haley Joel Osment) says: ‘They’re everywhere’ to be bone-chilling. The rest of the film mainly relies on jump scares that work fine, but I felt they would land better if the musical score didn’t keep cueing them up beforehand. However, in contrast to what one might expect from a horror film is the depiction of the ghosts, who, despite their often gruesome appearance are not evil spirits intent on harm. Instead, they are tragic lost souls trying to find some sense of closure either through help from the living or by helping the living.
Shyamalan’s direction is exemplary, serving as a great reminder that he does possess considerable talent behind the camera. The film is slow and delicate, with the story moving along at a methodical pace, much of it playing out in long dialogue-heavy scenes that, while light on action, are heavy in emotional impact. The final scene between Cole and his mother (Toni Collette) is one such scene, an absolute gut-punch in which, after struggling to communicate throughout the film, the two finally break through to each other in a genuinely moving and tear-jerking finale.
Haley Joel Osment (who received an Oscar nomination for his role) is fantastic as Cole, a young boy afflicted with the titular sixth sense. In what must have been an emotionally exhausting role for such a young actor, Osment portrays the role with a vulnerability and a sense of tragic loneliness that you can’t help but feel overwhelming sympathy for. Toni Collette (who also received an Oscar nomination) is equally brilliant as Cole’s mother, the Australian actress displaying her versatility as a stressed-out mother desperate to understand her child while also trying to quietly deal with her own emotional turmoil. The role also allows Collette to show that she is among the finest actresses out there when it comes to adopting accents, with her adoption of a Philadelphian American accent never for one second sounding false.
While Osment and Collette are outstanding, the surprise of the film is its lead; Bruce Willis. As child psychologist Malcolm Crowe, Willis, gives one of the best performances of his career, perfectly cast in the role of a man trying to make amends with past failures, all the while his personal life implodes before his eyes. After suffering through his more recent works where he barely tries, it’s a revelation to see Willis give such an understated yet layered and surprisingly emotional performance. Such as when Malcolm admits his uncertainty about being able to help Cole, the sight of tears in his eyes being a subtle display of acting by Willis that has more emotion in it than his last 10 films combined. It’s a brilliant performance that reminds us that Bruce Willis can be a great actor if only he tries. I just wish he made better films so that we can get more performances like this one.
Of course, we can’t talk about The Sixth Sense without talking about the now infamous twist ending. A twist so famous that spoiling it has become a punchline. However, for the sake of the three people who still have yet to see The Sixth Sense, I won’t say reveal anything. What I will say is that it remains Shyamalan’s best twist and on that, despite repeated efforts, has never bettered and probably never will.
Boasting superb performances throughout, intelligent direction and a clever script that melds spine-tingling horror with poignant drama, The Sixth Sense is a terrific film that reminds us why, after decades of mockery, why Shyamalan was once initially (and arguably, rightly) celebrated as a cinematic genius. Here’s hoping he can eventually return to these glorious heights.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★