Rob Walker reviews The Sixth Sense

The Sixth Sense 107 min., 1999
Written by M. Night Shyamalan
Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Language: English
My rating: ★★★★★

Let’s be honest.  The real twist in The 6th Sense is that M Night Shyamalan actually made a decent movie.

* * *

It’s hard to imagine a time when M Night Shyamalan was the subject of critical praise and not just a national punchline.  But 1999 was a different time.  And like Iraq, ‘Nam, and a number of other national nightmares, what started off strong slowly fizzled out into a tortuous quagmire.  Still, what a start.  The 6th Sense solidified itself as the modern benchmark in ghost story movies, and for a good reason.

The film stars Bruce Willis as the perpetually sedated psychiatrist, Dr. Malcom Crowe.  After failing to save his withering patient (Danny “I thought this was a casting call for Trainspotting?” Wahlberg), Crowe gets shot in the belly and then watches helplessly as Wahlberg sprays his Funky Bunch brains all over the bathroom wall.  I guess New Kids on the Block left some lasting scars?  The film then picks up with young Cole – meticulously played by a studio engineered acting-bot who only answers to the pre-programmed code words, Haley Joel Osmet.  It turns out that Cole sees dead people, and it’s up to Dr. Crowe to sort this out.  Can Cole teach Dr. Crowe how to move on from his mistake?  And can Crow save Cole?  Or will Cole end up like Danny Wahlberg?  (Hey, Boomtown and Band of Brothers wasn’t that bad.)

By Shyamalan standards, this is as good as it gets.  The pacing is perfect.  At 107 minutes, it’s actually a few minutes longer than some of his other films, but doesn’t feel like it.  The cinematography is gorgeous.  Say what you want about his movies, but he knows how to frame his shots with a cold, Kubrickian sense of symmetry and color.  So visually, at least, he’s as adept as Spielberg.  As a Philadelphia native, he makes great use of the city’s cobblestone streets, old architecture, and Gothic statuary.  The scares truly chill.  They run a diverse mix of sound, visual, and implied.  And Shyamalan crafts each one with Hitchcockian skill.  Some of them – like a silent rearranging of the kitchen – are so quick that they truly surprise.  The best, though, goes to the now iconic ghost girl in the bedroom.  While her first reveal is terrifying enough, it’s the lingering shot that follows which cements the director’s true flare for suspense.  Shyamalan holds on the ghostly figure beneath the blanket, and it’s up to Cole to pull the blanket off.  This is the stuff of kids’ nightmares.  And Shyamalan admitted in interviews that the most terrifying thing for him as a child was the thought of going into a house he knew had been broken into, and not knowing what he’d find.  For all his future flaws, he understood principally that it’s the unseen anticipation that makes for perfect suspense.  And this movie nails it.

Of course, everyone knows the rest.  The “twist ending” entered the nefarious realm of pop culture long ago, creating its own comical backlash as a result.  Soon, every hipster douchebag came out of the woodwork to say, “Yeah, I can’t do that movie because I figured out the twist from the trailer!  Hell, I figured it out before Shyamalan started filming!  No, before I was born!  My mother figured it out when I was in the womb!  Now gimme a cookie!”  To that, I say: SO FRICKEN’ WHAT?

First off, as if a particularly smart kindergartener couldn’t somehow stumble upon the twist.  Second, as if knowing the twist somehow wipes out the brilliant execution going on in the rest of the film.  That’s like throwing out an Ice Cream Sundae because you could predict it’d have a cherry on top.  And third, as if the movie was ABOUT the twist in the first place!  Again, at most, this is a cherry.  Seriously, I’m hard pressed to think of ANYTHING the twist truly affects in the story.  In a film like The Others, flaws and all, the twist completely alters the movie that preceded it.  The same can be said for lesser Shyamalan films like The Village.  Without revealing the twist to The 6th Sense – for the one guy who just crawled out of his 60’s bomb shelter like Brendan Fraser in Blast From The Past – I will say following:

It’s about a failed psychiatrist and a haunted boy trying to help each other cope and move on.

That’s what it was before the twist, that’s what it is after.  Really, you could remove the twist and have the same damn movie.  Hell, in some ways, it might even make it better.  It’s not as brilliant as some people think it is.  But, by the same token, it takes nothing away.  The rest of the movie is great regardless of the twist, not because of it.

And there it is.  The 6th Sense.  Where Shyamalan went wrong after this is best left for future generations to figure out.  Part of it may be luck.  Shyamalan’s uber-serious, “funeral home” style of directing may have been perfectly suited to this story.  The acting itself, so much the bane of latter M Night projects, works here for the precise reason that the child IS haunted, and so is the psychiatrist (in his own way).  So whispering every line as if you were filming in a public library actually works here.  In something like Unbreakable?  It’s unintentionally hilarious.

Perhaps Shyamalan should’ve quit while he was ahead?  Perhaps he should’ve stuck with Gothic ghost stories?  Or perhaps he should’ve worried more about his stories and not his twists?  Either way, the master who once compared himself to Agatha Christie somehow made himself the cautionary tale of the 21st century…

Like, “Never start a land war in Asia.”  Or, if you’re Newsweek, never declare a young director the next Steven Spielberg until he has a few more good movies under his belt.

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