The Sixth Sense (1999) Director: M. Night Shyamalan
“I see dead people…”
M. Night Shyamalan’s magnum opus uses a simple ghost story and turns it upside down with one of the most memorable twist endings in cinematic history (spoiler alert below). The Sixth Sense vaulted Shyamalan’s career bringing numerous comparisons to Hitchcock. The success of the film brought Shyamalan a string of successive future films like Signs (2002) and The Village (2004). His later films after The Village, however, have been mostly forgettable or disappointing. The Sixth Sense was the second-highest grossing film of 1999, second only to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. The movie was released on Shyamalan’s 29th birthday. The Disney/Buena Vista Executive, David Vogel, who signed off on Shyamalan’s film at full price with Shyamalan as the director was promptly fired when he neglected to properly seek approval for the deal through the internal corporate chain of command at Disney.
The title for the film is in reference to the five senses (sight, smell, touch, scent, and taste). ‘The Sixth Sense’ refers to an ability to sense the presence of dead people.
The story is about a troubled 9-year old boy named Cole Sear (played by Haley Joel Osment who was encouraged to audition for the role by his father, a theatre director). Cole’s mother (played by Toni Collette) apparently hires a child psychologist to help her son. The psychologist is named Dr. Malcolm Crowe (played by Bruce Willis who agreed to the role as part of a three film settlement deal with Disney after he effectively ended a production called Broadway Brawler). Cole reveals to Dr. Malcolm his particular issue -he can see dead people walking around like normal people, but they do not think they are dead. We are given a series of vignettes in which Cole is haunted by various ghosts: a woman in his kitchen, a girl vomiting, dead people being hanged at his elementary school. We are also given glimpses into Dr. Malcolm’s past: another young boy named Vincent with a similar problem to Cole but Dr. Malcolm was unable to successfully treat him. Vincent shows up at Dr. Malcolm’s house, shoots him, and then himself. We are also clued into Dr. Malcolm’s distant relationship with his wife. Dr. Malcolm believes Cole’s story and tries to help him. He begins treating him -the solution is for Cole to help the dead people no matter how scary it might be. Cole tests it out by helping a girl who was secretly poisoned by her mother (Cole visits her funeral and reveals a secret video she recorded while alive for her father to see). The experiment is a success.
Now for the unexpected twist at the end (the first time you watch it): before they part ways, Cole suggests to Dr. Malcolm that he should try speaking to his wife while she sleeps. When he goes home, Dr. Malcolm finds her asleep on the couch with their wedding video playing. She softly asks ‘why did you leave me’ in her sleep. Suddenly, everything becomes clear to Dr. Malcolm -he too is dead. He did not realize it because dead people walk around us all the time, only seeing what they want to see. A series of flashbacks reveal to us the whole truth. Dr. Malcolm, now realizing what has happened, confesses his love for his wife while she sleeps and then he departs.
The Sixth Sense was shot on location in Philadelpha. There are several notable actors who play ghosts in the film including Mischa Barton, Donnie Wahlberg (who lost a tremendous amount of weight for the role). Shyamalan’s cameo as a doctor was a nod to his family, many of whom are doctors, however he was apparently dissatisfied with his own performance and cut much of his scene. Reportedly, there were some odd coincidences behind the scenes. For example, Toni Collette regularly woke up in the middle of the night in her hotel room at unusual repeating numbers (i.e. 1:11am; 3:33am; 4:44am).
There are many little consistencies throughout the film: the drop of temperature indicates an angry ghost is nearby, people who have a small tuft of white hair tend to be able to sense dead people, the color red also foreshadows moments of confrontation with a ghost (a red balloon at a birthday party, Cole’s red sweater, a red tent pitched in his room and so on). If you pay close attention the only clothes worn by Dr. Malcolm throughout the whole movie were worn by him on the day he died. Additionally, if you pay close attention, there are a few scenes that lead the audience to believe Dr. Malcolm interacts with other living people (such as Cole’s mother), however looks can be deceiving! The Sixth Sense masterfully plays the audience like a violin in ways modern Hollywood rarely has been able to accomplish.
Shyamalan’s most unique talent for taking a genre film back to basics, a horror film like The Sixth Sense, a superhero film like Unbreakable or a sci-fi film like Signs, and still set it apart from other films made him very promising for the new century of the cinema. It may have taken a while for him to get back on track with Split, Glass and Old. So it’s certainly promising that persistence can still count for something in these very trying days of entertainment.
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