Once upon a time, M. Night Shyamalan wasn’t a pretentious hack. That time was the late ‘90s, long before his increasingly lame attempts at suspense thrillers — The Village, Lady in the Water, and most recently, The Happening — failed to thrill anyone at all. For many, as the years go by it’s easy to roll their eyes at the arrogant auteur who promises excitement and lately delivers nothing but boredom.
What many of us almost forget is that M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout 1999 film, The Sixth Sense, was a legitimately good movie. Even though it’s easy these days to do an M. Night impression by waving your arms in the air and screaming, “What a twist!” there’s no denying that many of those seeing The Sixth Sense for the first time were legitimately surprised by its organic, heartbreaking ending.
The Sixth Sense follows Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis), a psychiatrist tasked with counseling troubled Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a young boy who insists that he can see dead people. As the film progresses Crowe’s skepticism fades as he witnesses first hand the harsh reality in which Cole exists, one where tortured spirits roam the world unaware that they are dead.
Though on the outside The Sixth Sense is a simple ghost story, the script puts layer upon layer of real human drama into the mix, drama that is bolstered by amazing performances from Willis, the preternaturally gifted Osment, and Toni Collette, who portrays Cole’s put upon mother. Amidst all the scenes of terror, these three actors express an honest emotion in their portrayals of families torn apart by circumstances outside of their control.
Beyond the drama, it’s tension that makes the movie work. As many other reviewers have commented over the years, the tone of the movie is downright Hitchcockian — with cameras slowly panning through gloomy hallways, lingering on the expressive face of a frightened actor, M. Night Shyamalan caused fear to build deep within the audience’s gut before releasing it in a torrent of terror with a few brief scene of the horrifying ghosts.
The tense thrills and the raw performances of the film’s leads are what bring The Sixth Sense home. It also doesn’t hurt that the movie’s now classic twist ending (which I won’t reveal here for those who have somehow managed to avoid hearing it) isn’t forced into place — it’s something worked in subtly throughout the film’s 107 minute running time. As with the pervasive fearful atmosphere that built up to scares earlier in the movie, the final reveal is one that simmers throughout the story before eventually boiling over, leaving audiences unable to keep from gasping.
It’s a shame that after The Sixth Sense, the young auteur behind such a well-crafted film developed a big head and lost sight of how to make a truly good movie. As the years go by, M. Night Shyamalan becomes more and more a parody of himself. One hopes he will reflect upon what made The Sixth Sense so great and produce a new film just as memorable. Wouldn’t that be the most unexpected twist of them all.
– BuddyTV Staff Writer
(Photo courtesy of Buena Vista Pictures)