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Dissecting the Classics – The Sixth Sense

March 23, 2018 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
The Sixth Sense

Sometimes a nostalgic itch can come out of nowhere. For example, the reason I wanted to watch this week’s movie was because of Black Panther, which managed to top the box office for a fifth straight week, putting it in some pretty elite company when it comes to the last two decades of box office hits. Avatar is probably not going to ever be covered on this column, but the other movie was definitely worth revisiting.

Welcome to Dissecting the Classics . In this column, I analyze films that are almost universally loved and considered to be great. Why? Because great movies don’t just happen by accident. They connect with initial audiences and they endure for a reason. This column is designed to keep meaningful conversation about these films alive.

The Sixth Sense

Wide Release Date: August 6, 1999
Written and Directed By: M. Night Shyamalan
Produced By: Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy & Barry Mendel
Cinematography By: Tak Fujimoto
Edited By: Andrew Mondshein
Music By: James Newton Howard
Production Company:
Distributed By:
Bruce Willis as Malcolm Crowe
Haley Joel Osment as Cole Sear
Toni Collette as Lynn Sear
Olivia Williams as Anna Crowe
Donnie Wahlberg as Vincent Grey

What Do We All Know?

“I see dead people.”

The Sixth Sense is a 1999 supernatural horror/thriller that became the surprise smash success of its year. Positive word of mouth led to it ruling the box office for five straight weeks en route to becoming the second highest grossing film of the year (second to The Phantom Menace). It’s twist ending became the main topic of conversation over the summer, it’s signature line immediately entered the pop culture, and the movie became an awards contender at the Oscars. Everyone waited with bated breath for M. Night Shyamalan’s next movie, already declaring him an heir to Stanley Kubrick.

Then after one more great movie (Unbreakable) and one pretty good one (Signs), M. Night Shyamalan’s career spiraled as each new movie found some new low of laughably bad. He’s responsible for my most hated movie (The Last Airbender), and while he got some of his credentials back with Split, I think people grade that movie on a curve because we don’t expect much. Which begs the question; were we all wrong about The Sixth Sense? I mean, we were clearly wrong about the director and his potential, that much is beyond reasonable dispute. But is the movie itself still good? Is it still a classic nearly twenty years after it captured our imagination? Or upon further examination, does it fail to hold up?

What Went Right?

In case anyone needs a reminder, the plot of The Sixth Sense goes like this: Malcolm Crowe is a child psychologist who is feeling distanced from his wife after one of his former patients attacked him in their home. Unable to connect with her, he focuses his energy on helping troubled child Cole Sear, who isn’t able to communicate what is going wrong with him to his mother. As they get to know and trust each other, Cole confides to Malcolm that he sees and interacts with ghosts who don’t know they are dead. Cole eventually finds that he can use his ability to do good in the world, while Malcolm comes to a terrifying realization that you’ve probably heard about even if you’ve never sat down and watched this movie.

The main reason this movie works the first time is that the plot was very fresh and it’s executed very well. James Newton Howard’s score ramps up the unease and tension, Tak Fujimoto’s camera keeps characters at arms length and lingers uncomfortably on shots, Shyamalan’s script perfectly captures the awkwardness of his characters, and Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment are magnetic performers. But the reason it’s great is that when you watch it a second time, everything still works within the established rules. Once you start noticing how characters interact with Malcolm, you wonder how you were sidelined by the twist in the first place. And an astute viewer will also start noticing that the color red always signifies things which have interacted with the ghosts. All of these illustrate one point; The Sixth Sense is an example of genuinely great filmmaking.

Whatever you think about Shyamalan’s subsequent output, he clearly had a vision for this film. It’s a story that’s miraculously free of plot holes considering how much supernatural mumbo-jumbo is going on. It also manages to mix old school thriller aspects with modern horror elements. It goes at a leisurely pace and doesn’t really go for cheap scares, instead aiming for psychological dread and a sense that something is wrong. And yet, when it wants to, there’s some disturbing gore, genuine frights and a truly awful murder. For a movie that’s mostly a series of discussions with a child, it’s remarkably effective as a horror movie.

The movie also has its fair share of strong performances. Bruce Willis rarely shows his range, but this is a fantastic example of what he can do in a non-action role. He’s charming, funny, and sells the shock of the big reveal expertly. He also has a fantastic natural chemistry with Haley Joel Osment. Osment may not have grown up into a top player in Hollywood, but he is one of the best child actors there ever was. The movie hinges on his performance, and he carries it even when he’s not interacting with Willis. The final scene with his mother is an excellent scene, nicely tying up the theme of family members needing to communicate with each other. Toni Collette is fantastic in that scene in particular but also very good throughout, and Olivia Williams does well in a performance you really appreciate the second time.

What Went Wrong?

Amazingly, there is not much to nitpick in this movie. Shyamalan’s weird quirks do show up occasionally, like his penchant for lame insults and obsession with cameos of himself. But if you’re expecting the movie to not hold up, you’ll be disappointed. If nothing else, this shows that Shyamalan had a few stories in his brain that were worth telling and that he could tell well. It may be a sign that we shouldn’t crown someone as Hollywood royalty after one movie, but it’s also evidence that giving new artists a shot can provide something amazing once in a while.

And In Summary…

Simply put, The Sixth Sense holds up. You weren’t tricked into liking because of a clever twist or cowed into submission by the pop culture zeitgeist it created. M. Night Shyamalan’s debut feature is a lovingly crafted original ghost story with strong performances, great atmosphere, and which never breaks from its own established rules. It has heart and horror in equal measure, and deftly weaves in themes about appreciating and communicating with people we love while we have the chance. The Sixth Sense is a certified classic.

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Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story, Star Wars – Part 1, Star Wars – Part 2, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Die Hard, Spirited Away, Airplane!, Dirty Dancing, RoboCop, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Captain America: The First Avenger, In the Heat of the Night, West Side Story, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Rocky, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, To Kill a Mockingbird

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