Fright of the Living Dead
Most of the time when one discusses a decade-old film, a spoiler-revealing discussion is to be expected. However, if you haven’t yet watched The Sixth Sense (honestly, why the fuck not?) and have any interest in doing so, you’d better stop right now and come back to this review only after watching the film. Admittedly, I’m one of those rare folk that actually gets off on reading spoilers ahead of time, and this very rarely affects my subsequent enjoyment of the movies themselves. Back in 1999, however, someone rather wise advised me that knowing the details of this particular film will ruin the initial experience, and, as much as I hate to admit it, this person was absolutely correct. Here, the plot twist is inextricably linked to the carefully paced and painstakingly-plotted suspense crafted by writer and director M. Night Shyamalan. Of course, the mere mention of “Shyamalan” instantly conjures thoughts of his films’ ubiquitous third-act twists, which, of late, grown rather ridiculous. The problem with these recent examples (Signs, The Village, The Happening) is that these twists either make absolutely no sense in retrospect (as in “Water-Adverse Aliens Invade Water-Filled Planet”), are downright insulting (as in “Those We Do Not Speak Of”), or are entirely heavy-handed (as in “Mother Nature Will Have Her Revenge on Humanity”). But enough about Shyamalan’s general body of work because, fortunately, with The Sixth Sense, the dude actually gets it right.
As a supernatural thriller, The Sixth Sense rewards multiple viewings and holds up well over time. This durability quotient may have something to do with the fact that this movie isn’t just a story that explores the relationship between the living and the dead. It’s also about the troublesome alienation that often exists within our own relationships with those we love most. For his entire life, Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), has endured a terribly lonely existence as a haunted boy who must cope alone with ghosts that nobody else can see. For fear of looking like “a freak” and losing his only source of love and warmth, Cole is even afraid to reveal his secret to his mother (Toni Collette). These two actors portray a realistic mother-son relationship, with Osment giving a stellar performance that most adult actors could never manage and Collette delivering a perfectly nuanced portrayal of a survivalist single mother. When renowned child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis, who does well here but is overshadowed by Osment) arrives, his presence is something of a beacon of hope for Cole, even if, for most of the film’s duration, neither of them really believes their therapist-patient relationship will solve Cole’s problem. Of course, Crowe also has problems in his own relationships, for his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams), will barely even speak to him. At the beginning of the film, the alienation of all four characters is foreshadowed by Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), Crowe’s former patient, who breaks into the doctor’s home and shoots him in the stomach before taking his own life. Wahlberg’s short but powerful onscreen time does a great job of launching the unsettling creepiness that accelerates throughout the film.
While the performances are what really make this film a compelling one, the script is what focuses our attention on the suspense unfolding before us. Shyamalan wisely withholds any of the gruesome visions until at least the halfway point, and, even then, none of the freaky stuff gets gratuitous, unlike, say, the typical horror/thriller movie that enjoys disgusting its audience as much as humanly possible. Instead, the chill factor is very important in The Sixth Sense, and even if we do suspect that Crowe is actually dead and drifting about in ghost form, enough hints are dropped to ward off any prior audience assumptions. When Crowe meets his wife at an Italian restaurant (the one in which he proposed marriage), Anna seems upset with him because he is late and acting distant lately. She even whispers “Happy Anniversary” as she pays the check and leaves. In retrospect, we learn that Anna dined alone that evening in an effort to uphold the marriage’s anniversary ritual. Shyamalan also makes his audience believe that Crowe speaks with Cole’s mother even though they never do so onscreen. These seeds are planted when Cole arrives home from school to see his mother and Crowe seated next to each other in chairs and deep in apparent conversation. Then, Crowe questions Cole about his “free association” writings in a scene that is juxtaposed with the mother’s discovery of these writings. Crowe is also present in the hospital setting when another doctor queries Cole’s mother about her son’s scratches and bruises. So, we’re led to believe that Cole’s mother actually hired Crowe to help her son. In this way, the audience is much like the ghosts of this film, who “only see what they want to see.”
The audience also grows increasingly invested in the film’s narrative path by the credibility of its characters. We believe that Cole can be so emotionally mature because the skeptical Crowe channels our own disbelief and, therefore, anchors us in reality. In addition, Cole occasionally behaves as a proper little boy does, such as when he muses about his father’s girlfriend, who works in a toll booth, and wonders what she does when she has to pee. Unfortunately, this is one question that is never answered by the end of The Sixth Sense. but we can forgive this gentle trespass from a film that subversively allows a patient to mock his doctor by insisting that, within any good bedtime story, “You gotta add some twists and stuff.” Indeed.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Fortunately, she does not see dead people at agentbedhead.com.
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