Monday, October 10, 2016

The Sixth Sense

The most influential horror film of the early nineties was The Silence of the Lambs. The most influential horror film of the mid-nineties was Scream. The Sixth Sense was the most influential horror film of the late nineties.

The movie made the name of director M. Night Shaymalan, was nominated for a boatload of Oscars, and inspired a whole slew of movies with twist endings that pulled the rug out from under audiences, whether they made sense or not. More importantly, it marked a departure from the countless police procedurals that arrived in the wake of Silence of the Lambs and the jokey, ironic, self-aware, teen-oriented stylings of Scream and its imitators and offered something more mature and personal.

I wish I could have seen The Sixth Sense without knowing the big twist beforehand, but that proved impossible with a brother who said "I just saw the movie where Bruce Willis is a ghost, but you don't find out until the end." Still, even knowing the reveal ahead of time doesn't diminish the movie, and as it stands, it remains the best movie Shaymalan has made to date.

Child psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) takes on the case of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a boy who lives with his single mom (Toni Collette) in Philadelphia and has been having serious behavior problems at school, is socially isolated, and has been having fits.

Crowe himself is having problems with his wife Anna (Olivia Williams), who has grown distant from him, and throws himself into his work. More importantly, Malcolm sees in Cole similarities with another patient (Donnie Wahlberg) who as an adult accused Malcolm of failing him, and he sees this as a chance to atone. Finally, Cole confesses his secret to Malcolm: he sees dead people.

The Sixth Sense has the elements of a standard horror thriller, but the strength of the performances, along with Shaymalan's writing and direction, elevates it. This is a patient, quiet, and sad movie, one where the scares and creep factor emerge from the seeming normalcy of the surroundings. Sure, some of the ghosts, once we the audience start seeming them, are freaky and have ghastly, gory wounds, but the movie is not built on jump scares and loud noises but an eerie sense of dread. The movie's nearly half over by the time Cole reveals his secret, but all the while, we know something is wrong.

Not only is Cole terrified by the presence of all these ghosts who occasionally hurt him physically, emotionally, he's overwhelmed by their all-encompassing despair, guilt, and anger. Their presence is constant, and he can't escape them. Ghosts in haunted house movies usually have the decency to remain rooted in one spot, but these spirits hound Cole, following him on the street, in school, and at home. He can't escape them, and there's no one he can turn to for help. It's not just fear he feels; it's hopelessness.

In retrospect, it's probably shouldn't have been that hard to figure out Malcolm too is a ghost communicating with Cole. There are a lot of hints and innuendos to suggest it. The opening scene, with Malcolm getting shot, is the type of thing that sets off alarm bells in the more astute viewer today, but The Sixth Sense arrived before we got used to seeing those types of shock twists.

For the most part, Shaymalan does a great job of concealing the truth about Malcolm's death. Where and when we see him makes perfect sense for a child psychologist to be when his patient is in trouble. Maybe we wonder Malcolm how knew where to be at a given time, but remember, ghosts only see what they want to see.

Ultimately, The Sixth Sense, despite being set among so much sadness and grief, is about reaching out and connecting. The world is a dark, scary place unless we learn to communicate and open up with each other. When Malcolm suggests Cole listen to the ghosts and try to help, they stop being scary, and he begins making a difference for them. Subsequently, he opens up, reconciles with his worried mother, and gives Malcolm the advice he needs to reconnect with his wife. It doesn't bring him back to life, but it allows to him to move on.

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