By John H. Foote
24.THE SIXTH SENSE (1999)
The hushed terror of the little boy telling a doctor his secret was the TV commercial of the year, transfixing millions of movie goers with is deceptively simplistic approach.
“I see dead people” became the most important line of the year, instantly stopping our breath, and acted with stunning purity by Haley Joel Osment. In that single moment there is no doubt in my mind he became a candidate for the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor.
One of the greatest ghost stories ever made, The Sixth Sense became a critical darling and massive box office hit, launching the film’s director and writer M. Night Shyamalan into the front ranks of American filmmakers. Newsweek ran a cover story hailing him “The Next Spielberg” which given it was the late summer of 1999 and his star was rising might have been true, but by 2004 was certainly not. With the incredible twist ending of The Sixth Sense, and yes, it is perfect, it seemed he felt his other films needed such a twist too, some working, but the twists in The Village (2004) failed so utterly and were worse than failures, they were cheats, interest in his work waned. Ten years later no one was going to see his films and it was not until 2017 that he made a film that pulled audiences in again. His first two films after The Sixth Sense were huge hits with both critics and fans – Unbreakable (2000), a superb take on superheroes and villains living among us, and Signs (2002), a terrifying aliens on earth film nicely acted by Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix.
Cole (Osment) is a strange loner of a child, gifted (or cursed) with seeing what we do not, which is precisely what he entrusts his psychiatrist with, he literally sees the ghosts of the dead, they seem attracted to him, following him around hoping for help. We go through the film watching the two interact with each other and watching each interact with the people in their lives. Cole’s mom knows something is wrong with her son, but something more seems to be haunting the boy. Drawers open mysteriously, an entire kitchen it left with doors open and drawers opened in a second, and though Cole knows he cannot say. Only when he begins seeing David (Bruce Willis) a genuinely concerned psychiatrist does Cole find someone he can tell, a man he trusts.
The film moves through a series events and then reveals its twist, and it was a doozy.
At the beginning of the film, David and his wife arrive home after a night out to find a mental patient in their home, wielding a gun. He shoots and kills David, and then turns the gun on himself. It is right after this that David first sees Cole. You see Cole knows David is dead, but as Cole has explained to him, he does not. The first time I saw the film I was mesmerized but when it was over, I though there must be an error in continuity, Shyamalan must have made an error. So I went back, saw nothing, went back a third and fourth, nothing. When it was released on video, more of the same, nothing, until I decided it was perfectly executed, and I mean, perfect.
The two key sequences for me in which to try and find an error were the sequence where Cole walks in on his mother and David, home from school, and they were sitting silently, not saying a word. Of course, they were not speaking, she could not see him! No one but Cole could! The second was the anniversary dinner with his wife that it appears he has missed. He enters the restaurant sits in a chair already placed so he would not have to movie it and apologizes to his wife for missing the dinner. She pays the bill and leaves, not even acknowledging him, again because she cannot see him. They are not fighting as we might have initially thought, a year has passed since his death and she cannot see her dead husband. Brilliant.
And there were others – Cole seeing the people hanging from the rafters, seeing a dead woman outside his car, right in front of him that his mother cannot see, and best of all the little girl murdered by her mother reaching out from the grave, with Cole’s help to see the woman does not get away with her death. Superbly, subtly directed by this gifted new filmmaker.
The Sixth Sense was a monster hit at the box office bringing in $680 million and at least half of that on video sales. Come Academy Awards time the film was nominated for six Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Osment) and Actress (Toni Collette) and Best Screenplay. Sadly, it won nothing despite being deserving of a couple.
Osment went on to star in Steven Spielberg’s A. I. – Artificial Intelligence (2001) before growing up and finding less and less roles being offered. Shyamalan has continued to work steadily in the film business but has never come close to the acclaim he received for this film. Some of his films are ridiculous – The Happening (2008) especially about a plague moved upon humanity by the trees as though they were lashing back.
Of the great horror films of the nineties, The Sixth Sense tops the list, a perfect ghost story, beautifully directed and acted by all. After Pulp Fiction (1994) this remains the best work of Bruce Willis.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.