NOT EVERY GIFT IS A BLESSING.
We can barely recall now that the man responsible for recent duds like The Village (2004) and Lady in the Water (2006) had his breakthrough with a truly ingenious ghost story. The film begins with a woman fetching a bottle of wine from a dark cellar and suddenly shuddering as if a cold wind hits her. We have all experienced it, as well as an accompanying sense of fear. With this film, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan shows us that in those moments there is every reason to be afraid.
A kid seeing things we don’t
When writing the screenplay, Shyamalan pondered his own childhood. He used to be afraid of everything. What if, he thought, a kid could see things the rest of us don’t, and that those visions were so horrific that they kept him in a constant state of shock? He created a complex nine-year-old character, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), whose experiences are not easily explained to his concerned mother, Lynn (Toni Collette), or his teachers. He’s assigned a psychologist, Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), who follows him around and tries to figure out just what is bothering the obviously intelligent but frightened kid. Malcolm sees in this case a chance to redeem himself after failing to help another child many years ago who had problems similar to those of Cole’s; he ended up killing himself in Malcolm’s bathroom.
At the same time, the psychologist is trying to save his marriage, which started to deteriorate shortly after the horrific circumstances surrounding that suicide. As Cole begins to trust Malcolm, he prepares himself to tell him his secret. The reason why he lives in fear is because he keeps seeing dead people around him, ghosts reenacting their deaths. Cole needs Malcolm to help him understand why he’s the only one seeing them and how he can come to peace with it.
Frightening us with few means
In order to make the story as believable as possible, Shyamalan needed an extraordinary child to portray Cole, and he found a prodigy. Haley Joel Osment instantly makes us care for this lonely kid. In scenes with Collette, he’s perfect; they share a heartbreaking (and inspiring) moment near the end of the film that illustrates Cole’s gift as a bridge between them and loved ones who have passed away. Willis is also quite good; his part is pivotal and he plays his most important scene, the one where Cole tells him the secret, just the right way. Looking into his blank face, you’re not quite sure if he’s intimidated, skeptical… or perhaps even in denial of the truth.
Not much blood or scary visual effects are needed here; Shyamalan frightens us with few means, such as the music, which is low-key, often depending on eerie sighs and whispers. The twist is highly effective and it’s surprising how well it works, but it’s clear how carefully the filmmakers made sure the plot would hold up to scrutiny.
Still, without its emotion and heart, the film would have been just another scary flick; the point of Cole’s gift or curse is that he can use it to help others and there’s a touching subplot where a young girl uses Cole to let her father know what caused her death.
Everything comes together beautifully in this film, but later works by Shyamalan have not been so lucky. Still, he should be commended for always having bold visions that on paper may look unrealistic or ridiculous. Sometimes he falls on his ass, but this film will always prove that Shyamalan has it in him to dazzle us with his imagination.
The Sixth Sense 1999-U.S. 107 min. Color. Produced by Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel. Written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto. Editing: Andrew Mondshein. Music: James Newton Howard. Cast: Bruce Willis (Malcolm Crowe), Toni Collette (Lynn Sear), Haley Joel Osment (Cole Sear), Olivia Williams, Donnie Wahlberg, Glenn Fitzgerald… Mischa Barton.
Trivia: Shyamalan reportedly got the idea for this film from an episode of the Canadian TV show Are You Afraid of the Dark? (1992-1996). The director also plays a doctor in this film.
Quote: “I see dead people. Walking around like regular people. They don’t see each other. They only see what they want to see. They don’t know they’re dead.” (Osment to Willis)
Last word: “I keep getting asked like today, today was foreign press… And they’re saying, ‘What do you want your name to mean in the future?’ And I said, you know, ‘Originality, that’s what I want it to mean.’ If I saw a movie that I, that actually was in the genre of something that I liked, I’d probably get discouraged and not write it. I remember, swear to God, I remember I had this ‘Sixth Sense’ idea years before and I put it away ’cause I heard they were making ‘Casper’. Swear to god, I was like, ‘Well there goes that.’ You know, you could totally kill yourself that way, what a terrible existence, so I don’t, you know, I don’t listen to other movies like that…” (Shyamalan, IGN)