It is a rare case that someone would have been better off if the apocalypse had occurred during their lifetime, but this certainly seems so of writer and director M. Night Shyamalan. After all, if Y2K had been the civilization-crippling event it was projected to be, and 1999’s The Sixth Sense was being screened in front of a huddled collection of survivors in a dystopian auditorium on a jury-rigged projector, Shyamalan’s stunted career would be considered an artistic loss on par with the early deaths of Wilfred Owen, Janis Joplin, and John Keats.
As it stands, however, the director who Newsweek Magazine once labeled “The Next Spielberg” has churned out poorer and poorer examples of writing and directing over the years, and may have hit rock bottom with the consecutive failures of the laughable The Happening, the disappointing Avatar: The Last Airbender, and the clumsy After Earth.
Even if the tentatively positive reviews of his newer films are heralds of an upswing in the quality of his later career (which would be a twist worthy of a Shyamalan script), it is unlikely that anyone will ever put him on a pedestal again. Still, nothing that has happened in the last fifteen years has diminished the quality or achievement of The Sixth Sense, and what I would like to do is take a close look at Shyamalan’s early hit, and explore the many ways that this demonstrably bad writer and director got everything so very right.
The Writing, Themes, and Acting of The Sixth Sense:
The Sixth Sense is a movie about ghosts, but it is not a movie about ghosts. It is a movie about coping with fear and trauma, and about learning to appreciate perspectives or individuals who initially frighten or even repulse you. Our two principal characters, Cole Sear and Malcolm Crowe, embody both of those themes perfectly.
Sear’s absent parent would be cause enough for trepidation and worries about guilt, but his extrasensory encounters further isolate and terrify him. He recognizes his alienation from his fellow students, and has had to become mature at a young age. He tries to solve his problems on his own as well as he is able, gathering up any and all remotely paranormal or religious icons as a bulwark against his fears. But it is not until, on Crowe’s suggestion, Sear extends an olive branch to his post-mortem aggressors that he is able to recognize that there is and always has been an attempt at communication, which he has always misinterpreted.
Similarly, Crowe’s encounter with his ex-patient at the opening of the film becomes a defining trauma which consumes and distracts him from everything else he perceives and experiences. Sear’s secret ability is so inimical to Crowe’s understanding that Crowe becomes despondent and fears that Sear’s condition, surely a psychosis, is beyond his abilities to help. Just as Sear must reconcile with individuals who repulse him, so Crowe must reconcile with ideas that repulse him. Crowe’s mere entertaining the notion of Sear’s claims, however, allows him to find in his notes from his earlier patient the proof which changes his mind.
These characters inhabit these themes in the proper literary way, as human beings first and as thematic objects second. The characters are written with well-defined and interesting arcs, and they interact with each other in subtle, understated, believable dialogue. Both of the characters who become aware of Sear’s ability are completely skeptical until their concerns are put to rest by solid evidence; this is the healthy skepticism of real people, and not the unwavering contrarianism of static characters.
Overall, the writing of not just the characters, but also the movement of each scene in The Sixth Sense is top-notch. The reframing of earlier lines according to new information (such as with the ex-patient’s line about why Crowe would be afraid when he is alone, or the funeral-goer’s offhand comment about the younger daughter falling ill as well) is both satisfying for the viewer and consistent with the theme of reevaluating information from new perspectives. The character interactions are mirrored well in their blocking (such as with the initial scenes between Sear and Crowe in the church and the apartment), which is a success for both the writing and the directing.
The Sixth Sense, above all, rests on the shoulders of great performances from Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, and Toni Collette, yet it delivers in almost every other area of filmmaking as well. It has a tonally appropriate and moving score; an unnerving cinematography favoring colder colors and off-balance compositions; and a script wherein just enough is revealed about the logic of this fictional world for the viewers to suspend their disbelief with the film’s fantasy elements.
With all of the individual components of The Sixth Sense working well when singled out, and yet also meshing together so well, the whole is able to shine as an effective emotional experience on the first viewing, and as an artistic exploration of its themes on every later viewing. It is hard to blame Newsweek for their hastiness; after The Sixth Sense, everyone’s hopes were up for more to come from Shyamalan.
The Sixth Sense is not without its slight missteps. Some of the logic related to the ghosts doesn’t stand up to scrutiny in most or all of the scenes at Sear’s school, and almost every ‘near miss’ related to the ending twist comes across a little forced. But these and other nitpicks are flaws that can be forgiven in this otherwise masterful movie.
The really unfortunate thing is that the one detail of The Sixth Sense which Shyamalan undoubtedly kept close to his heart while making every subsequent film is the plot twist. Even though the twist of the film became a cultural phenomenon, and even though it stands as one of the more memorable moments for most viewers (or at least for the early crowds who managed to see the film unspoiled), the twist is almost irrelevant to what makes this movie great. If the movie laid its cards on the table about Crowe’s predicament from the beginning (to the viewers, not to Crowe, of course), the impact and craft of this film would only be slightly affected.
Instead of asking himself, ‘How can I make a movie that works that well again?‘ it seems like Shyamalan has been asking himself, ‘How can I shock audiences like that again?’ And even if you could shock an audience who now expects a plot twist (you can not), this would still be the wrong question.
The Unaccountable Masterpiece: