The Sixth Sense (1999)

(c) Hollywood Pictures / Disney

It isn’t his first film, but it may be his best.  The Sixth Sense works on one important level, one from which each of M. Night Shyamalan’s subsequent films have arguably fallen further and further away.  Brush away the creepy mythos and the infamous twist and what’s left is the real treasure: a character-driven marvel, for which the ghost story is just a vehicle.

You know the story.  We meet Dr. Malcolm Crowe at the end of his brightest day as he faces what might be his greatest failure.  A former patient, now a grown man, has come to accuse him, prosecute him, and execute him.  From that failure comes one last chance at redemption.  Malcolm finds another young boy named Cole.  Cole is very much like that first child—lonely, frightened, full of compassion, yet haunted by a terrible curse.

Cole is a boy that lives under the crushing weight of insecurity, given insight into something terrifying that no one else would believe.  He’s set apart, and cast aside.  But he can see light.  He reaches for it with everything he can muster.  Inside the little tent in his room are icons of higher protection.  He’s encountered the numinous, and it’s nearly broken his soul.  The paranormal aspects could easily overwhelm the story, and it’s in this aspect that Shyamalan achieves his greatest success.  We believe in Cole’s abilities because we believe in Cole.

Malcolm and Cole enter the story fundamentally alone.  Cole is raised by a single mother who works two jobs to keep food on the table.  Her heart is filled with love for her little boy, but she struggles to know and understand just who he’s growing up to be.  Malcolm struggles to reconnect to his wife, separated from her by the consequences of his failure and his own deep sense of inadequacy.  Both actualize potent metaphors of adolescence and middle-age.  Much of the story’s success comes from their efforts to figure each other out even as they try to figure out themselves.

Everything between the opening shot and the roll of the credits hums along at a deliberate, methodical pace.  The script manages a deft balance of humor and suspense, intrigue and heart, much of which rests on Haley Joel Osment’s considerable ability to create, not just project, emotion.  Bruce Willis is much more understated than usual, effectively stepping out of his own shadow to give Malcolm a life of his own.  Shymalan had written the part with Willis in mind, and the collaboration produces impressive results.

Part of the brilliance of the film is its deceptive fullness.  There’s always the hint of something more going on, and the movie tricks you into believing it’s given up all its secrets right up to the very end.  The film could take a slightly different course as it starts to wind down, and it would still end well enough.  But the film’s very last surprise is more than a mere sucker punch.  It doesn’t alter anything we’ve seen up to that point, nor is the film’s integrity dependent upon it.  If you look closely, the clues were always there.  Instead of changing everything we know of the about the story, the final reveal wholly enriches everything that came before.

It’s a watershed moment in the career of a young filmmaker whose rise and fall has become almost as legendary as the film that put him on the A-list.   The film serves as a template for almost everything Shyamalan did afterward.  This first collaboration with James Newton Howard created a bond similar to what Steven Spielberg and John Williams enjoy.  The sound and the picture compliment each other and work together; neither intrudes on the other.

It’s a great example of economical storytelling as well.  The DVD release shed light on a handful of deleted scenes that belong where they were left on the cutting room floor.  Shyamalan knew his audience was smart enough to keep up with him.  And he was clever enough to misdirect us in all the right places.

Thirteen years after its release, The Sixth Sense continues to yield a reward, even if the ending is already well known.

Starring:

Bruce Willis (Dr. Malcolm Crowe)
Haley Joel Osment (Cole Sear)
Toni Collette (Lynn Sear)
Olivia Williams (Anna Crowe)
Donnie Wahlberg (Vincent Grey)

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

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