After being honored by the city for his work, child psychologist Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) and his wife Anna (Olivia Williams) return home to celebrate, but their evening is interrupted by the intrusion of Vincent Grey (Donnie Wahlberg), a disturbed former patient of Malcolm’s who suffers from severe hallucinations. Though Malcolm tries to calm him down, Vincent shoots him before committing suicide.
The following fall, Malcolm has recovered, but things are not going well for him back at home. His wife has become more and more distant with him, and he hasn’t been able to forgive himself for his failure with Vincent. However, after beginning work on a new patient, a 9-year-old boy with a dark secret named Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment) whose case is similar to Vincent’s, Malcolm sees an opportunity to redeem himself.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, writer/director M. Night Shyamalan made quality films and The Sixth Sense was the one that made him a household name. Released in the summer of 1999, the film became a critical and box office hit ($672 million worldwide on a $40 million budget), eventually earning six Oscar nominations, two of which went to Shyamalan (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay).
Shyamalan has crafted a thriller here that would make Alfred Hitchcock proud. There’s no reliance on violence and gore, only a slow-burn chilling atmosphere. Although there are moments where disturbing imagery is used to show the physical inflictions of the ghosts Cole sees, they’re used very effectively and Shyamalan employs some clever jolt moments in hiding them at first by positioning the performer a certain way, leading you to initially believe the character’s fine.
Despite the occasional disturbing imagery, The Sixth Sense is, for the most part, a quiet and intimate style of horror (there’s a playback of a video midway through the film that features no ghosts or jolts, but given what’s been recorded and the reaction of the one watching it, it’s easily the most disturbing moment in the entire film). There are no fancy CGI effects for the ghosts, and the pacing is nicely restrained, allowing for us to really get to know and care for these characters before Shyamalan begins dialing up the chills. It’s not until halfway through the movie that we even find out about Cole’s secret. Up until then, you’re left to wonder what exactly it is that’s troubling him. Is he truly witnessing something terrifying, or is he just a child acting out over his parents’ divorce?
For sure, Shyamalan’s direction and writing greatly contribute to the characters’ depth, but the performances deserve just as much praise. Up until this film, Bruce Willis was mostly known for his action and sci-fi roles (the Die Hard series, 12 Monkeys, The Fifth Element), but he’s so refreshingly low-key here in one of the finest performances he’s given. While he is the star of this film, it’s to his credit that he never feels the need to one-up his co-stars, and because of that a genuinely heartfelt rapport develops between him and Haley Joel Osment.
Nowadays, Willis seems to be at a point where he’ll phone in a performance to anyone that’s willing to send him a paycheck. The fact that I got two cheapo films of his I’ve never even heard of for free when I subscribed to Vudu proves that argument right. However, though he’s deservedly made a name for himself as an action star, performances like the one he gives here, as well as in Pulp Fiction, show that he’s capable of displaying more range given the right material.
Often overlooked in favor of Willis and Osment, Toni Collette is fantastic as the single mother of Cole’s who’s at her wit’s end in dealing with her son’s problems. Much like Ellen Burstyn’s performance as Chris MacNeil in The Exorcist, Collette perfectly captures the frustration and anxiety of a mother who goes to great lengths to figure out what is troubling Cole, but comes back with either no answers or the answer she definitely doesn’t wanna hear (one incident, concerning Cole’s scars and bruises from the ghosts, has a doctor questioning whether she abuses her child or not).
That said, even though he’s not the highest-billed star of the film, Haley Joel Osment owns this entire film, and gives one of the best child performances that I’ve ever seen. It’s a tricky role that could’ve backfired on him, say if he played up the scares too cutesy or was unable to sell the mentality of a child who seems to be wiser beyond his years. Any kid actor can put on a dopey frightened face for the camera. Osment, though, brings such believability to the role and you totally buy into every ounce of fear and terror he displays over these visions of the dead he sees all the time and has no idea why he experiences such things.
Of course, the most memorable moment of the film is the most talked about and that’s the twist ending. I won’t reveal it, even though by now it probably doesn’t matter. Most everyone has either seen it, or hasn’t yet but someone ruined the ending for them anyway. Nowadays, much like Bruce Willis, Shyamalan seems to phone in his twists, but the big reveal at the end of this film not only doesn’t feel like a cheat (a common problem many film twists face), it puts so many different moments in the film beforehand into perspective upon viewing it a second time.
And that’s where my one minor nitpick with The Sixth Sense comes into play. Once the twist is revealed, Shyamalan tries to put things into perspective for us by going back and showing key moments once again when it’s not really needed. It doesn’t ruin the film in any way, but there’s a certain point, and you’ll know it when you see it drop, that would’ve been a perfect ending that leaves things a little ambiguous, yet keeps the twist in tact while maybe leaving a little room open for debate.
Still, great twists are hard to pull off effectively, and I’ve seen some films that start out good only to be derailed by needless twists that are there solely for the sake of having one. This one not only makes sense, it’s gone down as one of the most memorable in film and for good reason.
More than just a supernatural thriller, The Sixth Sense is a cleverly written and sharply directed effort from M. Night Shyamalan that blends traditional haunted storytelling with strong character studies. Even if you already know the twist ending, the great performances from Bruce Willis, Toni Collette and Haley Joel Osment, and the added layers given to certain details throughout the film in knowing the final outcome, make this an experience worth revisiting.