Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment star in The Sixth Sense, a chilling and moving modern ghost story that marked the arrival of M. Night Shyamalan.
The Sixth Sense was a phenomenon upon its release. A surprising one as well: even though it featured Bruce Willis, the film was made by a then-unknown named M. Night Shyamalan. Yet it became the second-biggest release of 1999, earning six Oscar nominations and launching its director to stardom. Shyamalan had previously made two films: Praying with Anger (which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in) and Wide Awake, which was buried by Miramax after struggles over creative control. But in a way, The Sixth Sense is the first true Shyamalan feature. And what a feature it is. A brilliant psychological thriller that quickly turns into a moving supernatural thriller with one of the most iconic plot twists in movie history.
Malcolm Crowe (Willis) is a dedicated and decorated child psychologist living in South Philadelphia with his loving wife, Anna (Olivia Williams). One night, they find Vincent (Donnie Wahlberg), a former patient of Malcolm’s who has broken into their home. Believing the psychologist failed him as a kid, Vincent shoots Malcolm. The next fall, Malcolm has survived but has lost a part of himself, whilst Anna has become silent and withdrawn. It is as if she is still haunted by what happened. Meanwhile, Malcolm has started seeing Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a nine-year-old boy who lives with his single mother Lynn (Toni Collette).
Cole is a curious boy who collects Christian figurines and has a toy soldier who speaks Latin. However, as Malcolm says, he and Vincent are “both so similar. Same mannerisms, same expressions, same things hanging over their head.” Like Vincent, Cole is quiet, has divorced parents and may have a mood disorder. And something is clearly troubling or harming Cole – as evidenced by the fresh scars on his wrist. Yet, despite Malcolm wanting to help, the boy doesn’t think he can. Furthermore, he doesn’t want his mother to know anything. Eventually, he tells Malcolm his deep secret: “I see dead people.”
With those four famous words, The Sixth Sense unveils itself to be a 20th-century ghost story. This supernatural element is only revealed 50 minutes into the film. Before, it could easily be about Cole’s behaviour or any other logical explanation. Doctors wonder if he is being abused, possibly by his mother. But once Cole reveals to Malcolm that he can see the dead, the second half shows the ghosts and the scary visions he experiences. We also witness the strain it puts on his relationship with his mother, such as when she confronts him over a bumblebee pendant that has gone missing from her drawer.
Shyamalan would be criticised later in his career for his odd writing, but his script here is a perfect example of misdirection. The way he frames the story and the interactions characters have with each other are subtle enough on a first watch but clever and obvious on subsequent viewings. He also manages to get the best out of every actor. Bruce Willis would appear in two (technically three) more of Shyamalan’s films, and it is clear how compatible the pair were. Willis’ turn is soft and assuring, imparting sympathy onto Cole whilst expressing regret over how he handled Vincent’s case. Maybe if he can help Cole, he can right that wrong.
Years before Hereditary, Toni Collette is superb as a mother increasingly worried about her child. And Olivia Williams is brilliant in her relatively small part as the detached and sombre Anna. She has alienated herself from her husband, not even making eye contact with Malcolm during a scene set at a restaurant. She has also started to take anti-depressants and rewatch her old wedding videos. Once Shyamalan reveals the reason for all this, her performance takes on a sense of poignancy. Anna and Malcolm’s lost love is a crucial facet of The Sixth Sense, and Williams’ performance demonstrates it flawlessly.
But the most important performer is Haley Joel Osment, since Cole is the film’s central viewpoint. Just ten years old during filming, Osment gives perhaps one of the best child performances of all time. He is so natural and sensitive, full of depth and a keen awareness of the rest of the cast (especially Willis and Collette). He can also be heartrending, such as when Cole is locked in a closet by bullies. Or the ‘I see dead people’ scene, with Osment teary-eyed in terror. Or the scene where Cole reveals his gift to his mother using secrets from her past, his well-written monologue matched by Collette’s stunning acting as Lynn goes from sceptical to emotional.
The camerawork by Tak Fujimoto (The Silence of the Lambs) is gorgeous and shadowy, making much use of Shyamalan’s expert framing and camera blocking. Plus, the music by James Newton Howard adds to the chilling, mysterious effect that the director wants to create. Then there is the doozy of a plot twist, so prevalent in pop culture that it is easy to find it out by accident. Without spoiling it, the twist is not just brilliant because it completely changes how to view the film we just saw. It is because it is attached to a powerful scene featuring Anna and Malcolm, their love and his need to help someone suffering.
It is fitting that Shyamalan – the man who revers Spielberg, who filmed homages of his films in the backyard – made a ghost story that feels almost Spielbergian. Its child perspective means The Sixth Sense contains a sense of wonder, particularly by the climax. Yet it is also a film about communicating with the living and the dead – about understanding and sympathising and helping people to cope (thanks to Malcolm, Cole goes from fearing these ghosts to helping them). The result is an exceptional film, a chilling and emotional psychological thriller with a patiently built story that has not lost its impact.
The Sixth Sense is now available to watch on digital and on demand.