1999 / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor / Best Supporting Actress

Film #446: The Sixth Sense (1999)

Of the 400 plus films I’ve seen some of them have included some memorable twists including the revelation of Rosebud as a sleigh or the fact that the majority of the characters in A Beautiful Mind. But of all the great movie twists one stands head and shoulders above the rest, that being the final revelation in The Sixth Sense. Obviously to talk about in some detail would require some plot spoiling so if you haven’t seen this film that was released over fifteen years ago then I suggest you either watch it or move on.

The Sixth Sense stars Bruce Willis who was on a second career resurgence following his downward trajectory post-Pulp Fiction. Willis plays Dr. Malcolm Crowe, a child psychologist who is shot in the opening scene by a former patient who believed that his former doctor failed him. Several months later Dr. Crowe is tasked with taking on a new case in the form of nine-year-old Cole Sear. From the outset, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan presents Cole as an outsider by having picked on at school both by the pupils and the teachers. Meanwhile Cole’s mother Lynn starts to worry about her son’s state of mind and starts experiencing odd occurrences in the house. Things come to a head in a classic scene where Cole informs Crowe that he sees dead people. From this moment on we get to see things from Cole’s perspective and learn that he tries to help people cross over to the other side by helping them in some way. This is seen via a subplot involving a dead girl who wants her father to know that her stepmother’s poisoning was the reason she passed away. Although the hints were there, Shyamalan eventually lets the audience in on the film’s major twist; that Malcolm himself is actually dead. His reason for staying on Earth is to understand how he failed the man who fatally shot and also to make sure his wife knew that he loved her. I think, in the year’s since its release The Sixth Sense has sort of become synonymous with this twist ending. That’s why I tried to be more subjective in my judgement of the movie and looked at it as a whole.

For a movie that is essentially a psychological thriller with elements of a horror film, I’m surprised that The Sixth Sense garnered a Best Picture nomination to begin with. This surprise comes from the fact that the film is set in the present day, features no ‘issue-based’ characters and doesn’t contain any flashy set pieces. Instead, it’s quite a traditional character-led piece that has several chiller-esque elements which build up to the big reveal. I can’t remember if I actually spotted the twist the first time round, but every repeat view of The Sixth Sense makes it more and more obvious that Malcolm is a ghost. Disregarding the twist, I think that Shyamlan’s script is at its strongest when we follow the tortured Cole; who is one of the best written young characters that I’ve encountered so far. The portrayal of Cole is enhanced due to the outstanding performance by Haley Joel Osment; who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his role. Osment gives an incredibly tender portrayal of a boy who is struggling in his personal life due to his extraordinary ability to communicate with the other side. Despite its silly premise, I don’t think The Sixth Sense ever really loses any credibility and instead the latter scenes fill in the gaps of Cole’s character. Alongside Osment, Toni Collette also was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar for her assured turn as Cole’s worried mother. Bruce Willis anchored the whole film together well and, as someone who’s best known for his action roles, I found him perfectly convincing as a mild-mannered child psychologist.
Shymalan showed throughout The Sixth Sense that he knew how to perfectly build-up to a killer reveal and he punctuated the film’s many shocks with some real human emotion. Unfortunately, with the exception of his second feature Unbreakable, every Shyamlan film has significantly dipped in quality with his latest offering After Earth being a prime example. However, The Sixth Sense does demonstrate how good a storyteller Shyamlan was when he first appeared on the scene and I’m hoping that one day we’ll see this brilliance at work once again.


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