[Film: The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan, 1999]
The Unaccountable Masterpiece:

On the Writing, Themes, and Acting of M. Night Shyamalan’s Bafflingly Excellent The Sixth Sense


Haley Joel Osment Sketch by M.R.P. - The Sixth Sense - M. Night Shyamalan - writing, acting, themes, plot twist

Caricature Sketch by M.R.P.


If Y2K had been the civilization-crippling event it was projected to be, and 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, Jimi Hendrix, and John Keats.

As the twenty-first century began and wore on, however, the man who Newsweek Magazine once labeled “The Next Spielberg” churned out poorer and poorer examples of writing and directing, ultimately hitting a protracted 10-year-long rock bottom from 2005 to 2015. To give modern context to the relative evaluation of The Sixth Sense in this analysis, here’s a quick refresher on the movies that M. Night Shyamalan both directed and wrote (or adapted) during that darkest decade:

There was Lady in the Water, a film that feels like three unrelated scripts messily spliced together; The Happening, the second best ever ‘unintentional comedy about nature turning against humans;’ The Last Airbender, a joyless hollowing out of its cherished source material; After Earth, at once a bland formulaic sci-fi movie and an ego trip for the Smith family with possible Scientologist themes; and finally The Visit, an attempt at horror and comedy that manages to be in no measure either frightening or funny.

Even if the noticeable superiority of some of his more recent work is a herald of an upswing in the quality of output in his later career (which would be a twist worthy of a Shyamalan script), it is unlikely that anyone will ever put him on that same kind of pedestal again. He has produced more films that can be called ‘bad’ than films that can be called ‘mediocre,’ and more films that can be called ‘mediocre’ than films that can be called ‘good.’ Moreover, the past couple decades have also revealed Shyamalan to be a writer with an ugly habit of making characters who are mentally or physically disabled be villains in his films, as occurs in Unbreakable, The Village, The Visit, Split, Glass, and Old.

But with all that being said, nothing that has happened in the last twenty years has diminished the quality or achievement of The Sixth Sense, and what I would like to do now is take a close look at Shyamalan’s early hit, to explore the many ways that this demonstrably poor writer and director got everything so very right. And to really drive home the angle I’ve chosen here, my analysis will be punctuated with comparisons to his later work.

The Themes and Characters of The Sixth Sense:

The Sixth Sense is a movie about ghosts that retains partial status in the horror genre, yet it is not particularly concerned with the lore or logic of ghosts in the way that many horror-favoring approaches to ghost myths are. Instead, it blends its horror elements with drama in order to foreground a set of worthwhile themes.

Two themes in particular rise powerfully to the surface: first, it is a movie about coping with fear and trauma; and second, it is a movie about learning to appreciate perspectives or individuals who initially frighten or even repulse you. And nothing showcases this better than the two principal characters, Cole Sear and Malcolm Crowe, who each embody both of those themes perfectly.

Bruce Willis in 2006 or 2008 (G1 Publicity) - The Sixth Sense - M. Night Shyamalan - writing, acting, themes, plot twist

Photo by G1 Publicity,
via Wikimedia Commons

Sear’s absent parent would be cause enough for his trepidation and his therapist’s worries about guilt, but his paranormal encounters further isolate and terrify him. Sear 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, as—in a brilliantly believable bit of childishness—he gathers up any and all remotely mythical or religious icons in a blanket fort in his room 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 of the world that Crowe becomes despondent and fears that Sear’s condition, surely a psychosis, is beyond his ability 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 possibility of truth in Sear’s claims, however, allows him to find in his recordings from an 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. Compare this to later Shyamalan outing Lady in the Water, in which the writer-director casts himself in the role of a writer whose work is prophesied to change the entire world for the better, playing opposite (among others) a character who is a curmudgeonly film critic whose insistence that all stories are predictable derails the earnest efforts of the protagonists. That critic character then becomes the only character to die in the film, as he is mauled to death by a wolf. Yeah, it’s, uh, just a touch more transparent and less compelling than some of his earlier work.

The Acting and Structure of The Sixth Sense:

As wonderful as it is that the characters are written with such well-defined and meaningful arcs, it is equally crucial to the excellence of The Sixth Sense that they interact with each other in subtle, understated, believable ways—which is just as much a triumph of the directing, acting, and editing as it is of the writing. Both Cole Sear’s mother and Malcolm Crowe, as the two characters who become aware of Sear’s ability, are completely skeptical until their concerns are put to rest by solid evidence. Toni Collette deserves special mention here, as her entire journey from revelation and skepticism to apparent belief takes place within a single climactic scene, and that journey is sold almost exclusively by her acting.

This is the healthy skepticism of real people. These characters are neither unwavering contrarians who refuse to accept clear evidence right in front of them, as are many of the characters in The Happening, nor are they credulous idiots who immediately believe whatever they are told, as are nearly all of the characters in Lady in the Water.

Overall, the writing of not just the moment-to-moment dialogue, but also the entire structure of the story, 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.

These character interactions are mirrored well in the blocking of the scenes (such as with the initial encounters between Sear and Crowe in the church and the apartment), which is again a success for both writing and directing. And after watching Shyamalan’s later films, it becomes notable how often The Sixth Sense gives its characters breathing room to simply act in a scene without dialogue or narration providing a heavy-handed explanation of the significance of what is happening. It’s one of the few times he managed to satisfy the old writing adage to show, not tell.

M. Night Shyamalan in 2008 (Bollywood Hungama) - The Sixth Sense - writing, acting, themes, plot twist

Photo courtesy of Bollywood Hungama,
via Wikimedia Commons

I would contend, however, that above all the success of The Sixth Sense rests on the shoulders of great performances from Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, and Toni Collette. Obviously, the most impressive work here is by Osment, whose carefully nuanced delivery bears the naturalism of a veteran actor many decades older. How much of the quality of the acting in the final product can be credited to the direction of M. Night Shyalaman, though, is deeply unclear. After all, the less said about the performances of some of his later protagonists, whether children like the central characters of The Last Airbender or adults like Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel in The Happening, the better.

Back on track, though, The Sixth Sense 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 editing that enforces how every scene matters to the plot, and in which 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; there is a flinch toward Shyamalan’s regrettable later tendency to have a character describe the plot of the movie in Crowe’s dialogue in the hospital scene; 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 film.

The really unfortunate thing is that the one detail of The Sixth Sense which Shyamalan undoubtedly kept close to his heart while writing and directing nearly 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 (despite so many of them having it spoiled beforehand), the twist is almost irrelevant to what makes this movie great. If the movie laid its cards on the table about Crowe’s predicament much earlier on (to the viewers—not to Crowe, of course), the impact and craft of the film would only be slightly affected.

And that is a big part of why, for all my jabs at some of his many mistakes, I am truly glad that Shyamalan has been able to continue writing and directing. He strikes me as a sincere artist, and with only two exceptions I have found even his worst films to be more entertaining to watch than the output of some considerably more consistent creators. Now, granted, the reason I find them so entertaining is usually that I’m laughing at them . . . but even setting aside the man’s array of unintentional comedies, the world of moviegoers would be somewhat worse off without Signs, would be noticeably worse off without Unbreakable, and would be much worse off without Split.

M. Night Shyamalan should have spent the year 2000 analyzing the success of The Sixth Sense. He should’ve been asking himself questions like, ‘How can I write a script that tightly structured again? How can I create characters that feel that natural again? And how can I influence acting, composition, and editing to once again let them assist in telling a story without spelling everything out in highly specific dialogue?‘ Unfortunately, instead, it seems like the question that Shyamalan actually asked himself was, ‘How can I shock audiences like that again?’ And even if you could truly shock an audience who now expects a plot twist, that would still be the wrong question.

[Film: The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan, 1999]
The Unaccountable Masterpiece:

On the Writing, Themes, and Acting of M. Night Shyamalan’s Bafflingly Excellent The Sixth Sense

was last modified: October 10th, 2022 by Daniel Podgorski
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