It was a full ten years from this movie’s original release before I finally sat down and watched it beginning to end. Catching up with it was a worrisome prospect because, of course, I knew about the twist ending. In 1999, word-of-mouth had been inescapable. I had missed my chance at partaking in the zeitgeist, and I could never see the movie with the kind of credulity and satisfaction that the original audiences did. So I hesitated, letting my doubts smolder. Without that big reveal that people couldn’t help but spoil, would The Sixth Sense even work? I caught up with the film at the tail end of a decade in which director M. Night Shyamalan embarked on one misbegotten project after another, so it was tempting to suspect that maybe the hype had been overblown from the beginning. All in all, there was a lot of static to clear away. Presented with the actual work, I was gratified. It was a very good movie. Still, I felt some disappointment during several of Bruce Willis’s scenes. The line “They only see what they want to see” felt like a rather feeble attempt at hand-waving in response to the story’s logical snarls. By the time that explanation is proffered, I’d already been taken for the ride. Unfortunately, the movie’s claim to fame was the sticking point for me. I couldn’t see it as much more than a gimmick. So when the opportunity came around to give the film another look, I decided I’d try to avoid taking such a literal view of things. What’s really going on in The Sixth Sense underneath the question of Dr. Malcolm Crowe’s living arrangements?
It’s not a super-original idea, really. The ghosts in The Sixth Sense are all fixated on the moment, and the cause, of their violent deaths. They wander the earth because the manner in which they left it was unjust and abrupt. The hook — well, one of the hooks, the other being a character named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) who’s been cursed with extra-sensory perception — is that the ghosts don’t know they’re ghosts. They are terrifying as a matter of course, but they don’t actively seek to haunt anyone or get revenge. The only one we really get to know, Dr. Crowe, understands that he can’t move on with his life (in a manner of speaking) after the trauma of taking a gunshot to the belly. We eventually learn that the ghosts gravitate toward the young boy Cole because he can help them, and this is certainly true of Dr. Crowe as well, though the psychologist is able to convince himself and the audience (and Cole) that he’s the one doing the helping. Theirs is a fruitful, horizon-expanding partnership.
Haley Joel Osment is the glue for this entire movie. As a child actor, he was extraordinarily gifted, capable of evoking rich sympathy without skimping on any of his characters’ rough edges. He was the breakout star of the film, and his character’s plight is much more urgent and memorable than Dr. Crowe’s. Nevertheless, in the opening credits, Osment is billed fourth. The Sixth Sense tells Dr. Crowe’s story, first and foremost. The movie doesn’t really take on Cole’s point of view until he reveals his secret. With regards to suspense, this was the right decision. The first half of the movie is an excellent slow burn, with hints and portents carefully meted out. In a fine homage to Poltergeist, an uninterrupted take follows Cole’s mother (Toni Collette) from the kitchen to the laundry room and back, only to find that all of the cupboards have been silently opened. Taking a page from Val Lewton’s playbook, Shyamalan understood that the suggestion of the paranormal is a very powerful thing. Sadly, the second half of the movie bears this out by way of contrast. I still find it a bit of a letdown, and the movie’s PG-13 rating might be a culprit. The suggestion that Cole is surrounded at all times by generations of dead Philadelphians is overwhelmingly horrifying, but ultimately we only see a few ghosts shuffle around his house at night. The jump scares are pretty tame, though a few still land. To be sure, it’s a dramatic necessity for Cole to overcome his fear, but the whole “let’s interrupt a child’s funeral with an accidentally incriminating video” sequence is just a bit much.
Scene-to-scene, this movie is still very impressive. One would be hard-pressed to name a more hackneyed premise than “child sees something magical but has difficulty making rational adults believe or understand,” but Shyamalan avoids energy-sucking cliches. The whole story is both honest and gripping. And finding the emotional core isn’t very difficult. That central scene, with the famous line, “I see dead people,” includes a less-remembered but equally important line: “Tell me a story about why you’re sad.” The Sixth Sense is about spiritually isolated people — a boy with a single parent who feels weird and alone, an outwardly successful man crippled by his shortcomings. That they each are able to find some measure of peace is the ending’s real power, not the twist or the accompanying quick montage that says, “Hey, remember all these clues?”
Shyamalan showed real promise here, an heir to Spielberg who doesn’t resort to outright mimicry. I haven’t seen any of the director’s films after Signs, so I can’t offer an opinion as to just how bad he got, or whether he’s making a comeback with his most recent films. On its own, The Sixth Sense is still both a gift and a curse. I’m not sure how the movie would have played if Shyamalan had used dramatic irony instead of the twist ending. With a more conventional narrative point of view, the movie would definitely have been less buzzworthy, but not necessarily worse. Dealing with reality instead of hypotheticals, though, I conclude that The Sixth Sense is an accomplished and patient film. Patience isn’t quite enough, though, is it? We also need to feel that the destination is worth the journey. And I don’t think I can glean as much from this film as I should given the content — certainly not on the literal level, and not really on the subtextual level either. The burdens placed on Cole are unimaginable, and the movie leaves us feeling not only that he can handle them, but that they truly are his responsibility. The Shining, as a relevant counterexample, is willing to retain its metaphysical awe instead of leaning toward demystification. In all honesty, though, I still think the parade just passed me by on this one. I’ll keep it at 3 ½ stars.