Sunday, August 1, 2010

The Sixth Sense

Year: 1999
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 89
Writer/Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Star: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette

Oh, what I would give to go back and watch “The Sixth Sense” for the first time again. I can only imagine the astonishment of a viewer discovering the film, knowing absolutely nothing about the premise or the now-infamous twist. I went to the movie opening weekend and can still remember the gasps and “Holy Shits” being screamed in the theatre during the closing minutes of the movie.

Reexamining the film today, it’s shocking to see how little the twist actually matters to the story itself. If the movie would have faded to black after Haley Joel Osment’s character Cole confesses to his mother (Toni Collette) that he can see dead people and has a message for her from her own mother, “The Sixth Sense” would still be one of the best thrillers of all time. But those final moments make the movie transcendent.

Setting the twist aside, the movie works beautifully as both a drama and a supernatural thriller, and of course those two components are closely connected. Hell, we don’t know ghosts are involved until 45 minutes into the film. Until then, Shyamalan takes great pain to create a complete world for Osment and Collette to inhabit and, just as interestingly, a void of a world for Bruce Willis’ child therapist Malcolm. Shyamalan paints in all the edges. At first Osment just seems like an odd, troubled child, and (almost) everything supernatural that happens around him could easily be explained away. Everything except several passages of Latin that he has memorized and that he somehow knows that his teacher was tortured for his stutter in his youth.

Even more important than Cole’s relationship to Malcolm is Cole’s relationship with his mother Lynn. There’s a moment early in the movie that tells us everything about those characters and how they relate to one another. Cole walks in from school, and Lynn kneels in front of him, smiles and tells him how she won the lottery, quit her jobs (yes, plural) and swam in the fountain. Cole grins and tells his mother how he was picked first for kickball, made the winning play and was hoisted onto the shoulders of his teammates. Both are lying, of course, but something about the lies gives both characters the strength to go on. There’s a moment later in the movie, just as beautiful, when Lynn races across the parking lot of a local Acme while pushing her son, who puts his hands up as if he on a rollercoaster. Both of their lives are trainwrecks, but they will always be there for one another, and that element informs everything Cole does in the movie.

When the supernatural is finally introduced after a shattering, now much-parodied, scene of Osment admitting that he sees dead people, the movie doesn’t change its tone or pacing. Yes, we can now see the ghosts Osment has been speaking of, but we are more interested in how Willis’ character can help Osment with his gift/curse. Shyamalan uses the ghosts as a nice way to keep viewers alert with several nice boo-scares, though. My favorite is when Osment is in a hallway and, out of nowhere, a teenage boy walks through the end of the hallway into the library. It’s a scare he would closely repeat in “Signs,” but works better here. There is gore, but it’s never gratuitous. In fact, the most stomach-churning moment doesn’t even involve ghosts, but when we watch a video tape of a Mother poisoning her daughter’s soup with Pine-Sol.

The scenes between Willis and his wife are the only time the film cracks a bit. Once you know Willis is dead and haunting his wife (Olivia Williams), you can’t help but pay attention to everything in the scene except Willis and how he interacts with his environment. Even though I have seem the movie several times before and know that it doesn’t cheat, that didn’t stop me from missing whole passages of dialogue because I was seeing whether or not Bruce Willis moved a chair when he sat down. Shyamalan goes to such great lengths to make it flawless that he inserts off-screen giggling behind Willis on the soundtrack in the half-second Williams (probably accidentally) looks at her husband in a crowded restaurant.

That can’t be helped. Shyamalan’s script is razor sharp throughout, ensuring that we understand that Cole is a gifted child who is much smarter than older children his age, but never letting us forget that he is, in fact, a kid. This is underlined in a scene where Willis loses his senses for a moment in front of Osment, and Osment responds by saying “You said the ‘s’ word.” Looking at it as a whole, and seeing just how much trouble Shyamalan went through not only to hide his secrets but also make it seem like he had no secrets to hide, and you have something very special. Shyamalan always seems to write best when he focuses on smaller casts. Between this film, “Unbreakable” and “Signs” he has made three masterpieces, and all of them have very small casts. His later films, though all interesting and full of ideas, lack the focus of his earlier work because of the larger ensembles.

As a visual director, Shyamalan is unmatched. He keeps showing us unexpected angles and new ways to approach even the most normal scene. “The Sixth Sense” looks and feels like one of Val Lewton’s best horror efforts from the ‘40s, with a sense of tension palpable throughout and the more chilling sights just out of view. Sure, he uses red a little (okay, a lot) too much in the film for added impact, but that is forgivable.

The acting throughout is nothing short of amazing. Osment’s face seems to hold all the pain of a man three times his age, and Willis is one of those actors who can hold his own with a child actor. Collette was the standout for me here. I remember the other two performances as being great, but Collette manages to create a fully-understandable, completely relatable three-dimensional character in (comparatively) little screen time.

And then there’s that ending. As I said earlier, the film would still be a classic without the twist, but the dimension that it adds to what we’ve seen before is palpable. Did Cole know that Malcolm was a ghost? If so, why did he talk to him? Does that matter? And Shyamalan takes his time after the revelation to give not only Malcolm the peace the character deserves, but also his long-suffering wife. After “The Sixth Sense,” almost every thriller or supernatural drama has had some sort of surprise, some to great effect (“The Others”, Shyamalan’s “Unbreakable”) and others notsomuch (everything else). “The Sixth Sense” is still the best of the bunch and remains one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen, mostly because it knows that the best way to take our breath away is make us care about the characters we are about to see go through hell.

My Score (out of 5): *****

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