Shyamalanathon 2009: The Sixth Sense (1999)

This week I'm looking at one of my favorite writer/directors, M. Night Shyamalan. While his execution can sometimes be hit or miss, I think is oeuvre is impressive, and I always enjoy rewatching his films. Spoilers follow.

Quick synopsis: Malcolm Crowe is a successful child psychologist who ends up getting shot by a patient he had years ago that he couldn't help. The next fall, Malcolm finds himself with a similar patient, Cole, that he can't quite help either. Cole lives with his overworked single mother, and to make things even harder, Cole sees dead people everywhere. It comes to the point that Cole has to open up about his talent/gift(?) to help Malcolm move on and to improve his relationship with his his mom. If you haven't watched The Sixth Sense in a while, I'd recommend it. It's one of the most rewatchable horror/thrillers out there.

Malcolm (Bruce Willis) thinking about quitting Cole's case.

A lot of that has to do with solid performances from the cast. Bruce Willis does underplayed well, Toni Collette does white trash mom well, and Haley Joel Osment does a good job of not being obnoxious or overly precocious. I think it would be very easy for these roles to get histrionic, but these actors make these characters ring true. Part of that, I think, has to do with the pacing of conversational scenes. Often in Shyamalan's films, the actors are given long takes to converse in a scene. It gives the actors more control of their character, as opposed to a heavily edited scene in which one line at a time is edited together to create an exchange. It also makes tension and silences more palpable since we know it's not being manipulated.

One of the most impressive scenes is when Lynn Sear (Collette) is trying to talk to her son Cole (Osment) about her pendant that she found in his bureau. They are sitting down to dinner and in one take we see her have a very tough conversation with her son. We see Collette slowly go from gently trying to get her son to confess to outright frustration. And Osment does great in this scene as well, knowing that lying would be easier than telling the truth, but tells his mom the truth to her anyway. He talks so quietly, just like a kid would when being interrogated by a parent. While Cole's secret adds an extra element to this scene, the family dynamic is familiar. And because it's done in one long take, you have to admire these actors for creating such a real moment, without the assistance of editing, music, or fancy cinematography.

Lynn (Toni Collette) and Cole (Haley Joel Osment) at the beginning of the dinner scene.

Another reason this is a much richer horror/thriller, is that there are a few plotlines going on at once that have as much to do with relationships as that fact that Cole sees dead people. On Dr. Malcolm Crowe's (Bruce Willis) end, we have him trying to help Cole, who is so similar to another patient he couldn't help. By helping Cole, he can redeem himself from past failure. We also have Malcolm's relationship to his wife. This is a storyline that doesn't really work the second time around once we know he's dead, except to see how unresponsive his wife is and how Malcolm only sees what he wants to see at this point. (Also, to prove that apparently these dead people have enough corporeal form to break windows when they see their wives with another man.) On Cole's end, we have him trying to come to terms with his gift with the assistance of Malcolm in which they end up helping each other out. Then we have Cole's relationship with his mom that is strained, not only because his father left, but also because he keeps a dark secret.

Most of Shyamalan's films are overwhelmingly optimistic, even in bleak situations, and this is no exception. By focusing on the relationships and giving everyone a happy ending of sorts, the horror seems to bring catharsis for all involved, dead and alive, and helps them to move on. The last 20 minutes or so don't have big scare moments since dead people no longer feared and healing relationships is the focus.

Malcolm and Cole talking about what they want to get out of their sessions.

And speaking of scare moments, they don't seem cheap the second time around. They seem to reflect how the characters feel as opposed to just a way to manipulate the audience into jumping (although that's kind of the point, too). This isn't a story about dumb people walking into suspiciously dumb situations. It's about a little boy who sees creepy dead people and doesn't know what to do about it. The scary moments with loud noises help the audience experience what Cole's experiencing. Not to mention the mentally unstable man (a frightening Donnie Wahlberg) that a doctor couldn't heal breaks into a house with a gun and destroys that doctor's life as well as his own. But for all the violence and creepy images, The Sixth Sense comes back to families and helping other people (even if they're dead). Shyamalan manages to get a traditional moral into a horror movie. This is no Capra, but M. Night manages to get values into a modern film without it feeling contrived or cheesy. And I think that's where this film's appeal lies: it has more of a point than just scaring the audience. Sure, the boy who shot his daddy's gun has half his head blown off, but he just needs some help getting to the other side.

And I didn't even touch on the fun moments, like parents at a school play all pulling out their camcorders to record their kids or Malcolm's lame magic trick, that break up a rather grim scenes. But The Sixth Sense is definitely worth another viewing, especially if it's been a few years. There's a lot to watch besides a few dead bodies and a twist ending. You might even jump a few times.


  1. everything you said, agreed :) it is one of the best, most original movies i've seen. you're right, there is a LOT of great acting too during those longer scenes- i never noticed that. now i'm wanting to watch it again... good review kelsy :) i'd like to hear your take on the village- kris really likes it, but that one just didn't do it for me so much.

  2. I cannot like this movie no matter how hard I try. I think it's probably the best script Shyamalan ever wrote because it doesn't cheat. The story feels very well thought out and it is well crafted.

    Ultimately, I prefer my ghost movies a little more bat shit. The Sixth Sense is too subdued for me and once you know the twist, how much fun is it on repeat viewings?

    Good series, Kelsy. I am looking forward to the next entry with frosted breath.

  3. I couldn't figure out how to work in my love of the phrase "look at my face" into this post. But let's be honest, it's possibly my favorite quote from the movie.