The Sixth Sense (1999) dir. M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams
The success of “The Sixth Sense” still surprises me. The film made just under $300million in the domestic box office, a phenomenal achievement considering it's small scale narrative limitations. If anything it’s a sign that audiences are willing to embrace quality without the formula elements of tentpole blockbuster films.
On the list of top grossing films of all time "The Sixth Sense" stands at number 30 in between “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl”, and “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”. In fact, amongst the top 50, it stands out like a sore thumb: it’s a rare non-animated film that isn’t or hasn’t had a sequel, it’s not for kids, its budget was a modest $40million, and it contains no special effects.
“The Sixth Sense” is sparse on plot, characters, and action, and paced like a slow burning candle and with the volume of a whisper. But with basically four characters with limited locations and dialogue, M. Night Shyamalan managed to perfect the supernatural thriller genre and of course, with the help of one of the greatest plot twists of all time.
Shyamalan’s four key characters are Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a child psychologist going through marriage troubles; Malcolm’s wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), is so aloof to Malcolm, she’ll barely even talk to him; there’s Malcolm latest case, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), an anti-social young boy who’s stricken with some kind of psychological disorder; and there’s Cole’s mom, Lynn (Toni Collette) who’s recently lost her mother and continually struggles to bring up Cole as a single parent.
Barely anyone outside of these four characters are crucial to the story. While Malcolm's wife appears to develop a relationship with a young co-worker and Cole gets bullied by some fellow kids at school everything is developed through conversations between these four characters.
In keeping the dialogue quiet and minimalist “The Sixth Sense” becomes more rewarding with multiple viewings beyond just the cleverness of the twist. One of the themes of the film is parenthood and the importance of love and attention. Since Lynn is a single parent who can’t always go to every play, soccer game or even walk him home from school, Cole likely develops his extra sensory perception as a mechanism to cope with his loneliness. This connects to Lynn’s post-mortum reconciliation with her mother, who likely had a similar relationship with her.
The film could even exist and be successful without “the twist”. The moment Bruce Willis discovers who he is is indeed a shocking reveal (and still sends shivers down my spine), the real twist occurs earlier in the third act when Malcolm and Cole discovers that his sight is not a burdon on him but a gift given to him to help the living reconcile with the dead. The build-up to the funeral scene is played out with perfect pacing and shot selection.
“The Sixth Sense” wasn’t Shyamalan’s first film, in fact, he had directed two non-successful film, non-thrillers previously. So how did he make this monumental creative leap to craft such a true auteur instant classic? Perhaps the divine intervention which always creeps into his films. Enjoy.
The Sixth Sense is now available on Blu-Ray from Walt Disney Home Entertainment
Watch this original trailer. The key reveal of learning Cole's secret is unfortunately ruined by this trailer