Classic Film Review: The Sixth Sense (1999)

‘The best twist ending [M. Night Shyamalan] has ever done’

Success or Failure: M. Night Shyamalan

The Sixth Sense, 1999

Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Starring: Bruce Willis, Toni Collette, Olivia Williams, Haley Joel Osment

 

Interesting fact: this was M. Night Shyamalan’s first film released on an odd-numbered year and he wouldn’t repeat this until 2013’s After Earth (instead releasing films in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2010). Cole (Haley Joel Osment) is an isolated and troubled boy with a peculiar gift: he can see dead people. He soon encounters child psychologist Malcolm (Bruce Willis) and eventually admits this gift, but not all the dead people are friendly.

This is the go-to movie to argue that M. Night Shyamalan is a good director (even if it was released 19 years ago), but he certainly did a good job here. It was the film which started the twist ending trait that has become such a staple of M. Night Shyamalan films and this film has the best twist ending he’s ever done.

The Sixth Sense, 2One thing I really liked about this film is the pacing; it doesn’t rush into the reveal and allows an aroma of mystery around Cole’s behavioural worries (hearing voices and citing to know the school’s real history). If he reveals it from the start there’s less drama; him telling the teachers that people were executed at the school wouldn’t have had the same appeal if we knew from the start that he was being fed this information through seeing the dead. Likewise the voice he hears; we’re left wondering if it’s a monster or something in his head, and they become scenes you think about afterwards in hindsight which is a mark of a good storyteller. And it was unique, too, how it wasn’t a typical ‘evil spirits trying to kill the protagonist’ type film; once he admits his secret to Malcolm they work together to try and find out why the dead have remained and we get some really nice moments out of this, including one where a dead girl gets revenge on her abusive mother through Cole. But while it has these nice moments, there are also some truly frightening scenes (notable the girl in the tent!) It was a nice balance between the two made even better with the reveal of the twist ending.

While I won’t go into the twist ending, in case somehow it’s still a mystery to you, it is cleverly done and I can see how it was a surprise to many cinema goers at the time. It’s an ambitious twist and one that could easily have been too foreseeable or too problematic and I think he did a good job in finding a balance in the middle. In hindsight a lot of scenes, when looked deeply into, look bizarre in how they play out from a storytelling perspective, but that doesn’t take too much away from the surprise.

The Sixth Sense, 3

However, on the note of storytelling, a few aspects weren’t fully explained. In one scene Cole explains the dead do not know they’re dead, yet later on in the school we see three bodies hanging from where they would have been executed. Surely they know they’re dead? Also, it seemed strange to me that there were three separate hanging bodies in three different positions; I don’t know too much about executions or hangings but everything I’ve seen ahs suggested they only really had one noose. And why were there only three bodies? And much like in other films they use a trope that really annoys me and that’s where ghosts disappear for a bit. Surely if they’re visible to him in one moment why isn’t the boy whose dad killed him constantly walking round the house? And the dead are seen to be able to open doors and cupboards, meaning they can physically interact with the world so why isn’t everyone spotting all the mysteriously opening doors?

Those may not be what everyone thinks about when watching this film, but, especially knowing the twist ending from the start, they’re things I try to pick up on as the film goes on. I’ve seen it in a lot of films where the abilities of ghosts change depending on the need of the scene so M. Night Shyamalan is not alone in doing this, but it is quite frustrating.

The film that made M. Night Shyamalan, but unfortunately it’s not been bettered since. From a man who got a Academy Award for Best Director nomination for only his second film he’s yet to pick up another one, instead taking home four Razzie nominations for Worst Director. The Sixth Sense is a very tense, very interesting and very frightening film with a lot more going on than simply a boy seeing dead people.

 

Personal: * * *     Acting: * * * *     Writing: * * * *     Presentation: * * * *

Overall Rating: * * * ½

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