“I don’t wanna be scared anymore.”
In celebration of M. Night Shyamalan pumping out a watchable movie this year, I found it fitting to revisit his most acclaimed work, The Sixth Sense. Perhaps the finest achievement of both Shyamalan, Bruce Willis, and just about everyone else who had their fingerprints on this movie, it’s a landmark work of its time. Though I’m still bitter that the ending was spoiled before I first saw the film, I still find it to be a wonderfully thrilling work which warrants multiple viewings for its compelling performances and textbook visual composition.
Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist haunted by the failure to properly treat one of his former patients, resulting in the patient’s suicide. He attempts to redeem himself through his work with a new patient, a young boy named Cole (Haley Joel Osment) with a troubled home life. As they cultivate a relationship, Malcolm discovers that Cole can “see dead people,” and they must work together to vanquish their personal demons while understanding and overcoming Cole’s frequent visits from the deceased. Part horror, thriller, and mystery, it’s an exciting screenplay which set the formula for similar films that have since followed.
It’s easy to criticize Shyamalan for his string of failures over the last decade, but it’s important to note that most of them stem from a botched premise. But when he runs with a concept, good or bad, he always seems to demonstrate more technical strength than narrative talent. The Sixth Sense was fortunately a case where he managed to fair well with both, though the film’s visuals still overshadow the story in my opinion. Some say that the film is rewatchable for its mystery, particularly to see how the pieces fit together once you understand the ending, but my second viewing seemed far more tedious for this very reason. Setting up the twist (which was an impressive feat in 1999, though still fairly predictable if you know that one is coming) requires a lot of down time, a lot of plot points jammed into place if only for a payoff. Shyamalan certainly astounded audiences by structuring his story in this way; I’m just skeptical that they were the right choices on which to build a film’s legacy. It all seems heavy-handed.
In just about any film, however, Shyamalan hits his familiar high points. Color symbolism has been analyzed ad nauseam in The Sixth Sense, but it’s still worth mentioning for being one of the strongest things about this movie. This is a director that knows how to get the best out of his actors, and even more prominently, he knows how to structure a frame. The melodrama and the low lighting is an excusable product of its time, but the film otherwise feels a lot more modern than it is. It was well worthy of all the study and accolades it received if only for its composition, and it inspired a lot of directors into the 2000s to take more care in terms of framing, subtlety, and exploring theme through visuals.
I can’t say I’m on board with the “Shyamalan comeback” just yet, but his past few movies point to an upward trend that I hope continues. If he can just take more care with his screenplays, telling stories about people instead of conjuring silly shock endings (The Village…), then we’ll finally have one of our great cinematic visionaries back on the playing field. And if not, we still have The Sixth Sense to enjoy.
Films Left to Watch: 891