The Sixth Sense (review)

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The Big Twister

If you’ve seen The Sixth Sense since it opened a month ago, you were probably prompted by its very effective trailer or by friends who said, “Wow, you’ve got to see this movie, it’s got such a twist!” The word-of-mouth is part of why I decided to go back and review a movie that’s been around for a while — I felt so out of the loop, not having seen this flick that everyone’s raving about. And I also wanted to give in to that feeling I had, that I had guessed what the movie’s twist was from the trailer.

So while I am both a bit dismayed and smugly satisfied to report that yes, I was correct in guessing what The Sixth Sense‘s big twist is (I won’t reveal it here!), I am overjoyed to report that not only is there much more to this film that just its twist, watching the film with full knowledge of its big secret adds new layers to enjoy.
Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis: The Siege, Armageddon) is a renowned child psychologist who works with disturbed kids. After a violent confrontation with a former patient — Vincent Gray (Donnie Wahlberg), now grown up and not at all right in the head — Malcolm decides to pay special attention to young Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment: Forrest Gump), who seems to be on track to turn into another Vincent. A social outcast, tormented by other children, Cole hides his anguish and pretends to be normal. But we can see as well as Malcolm can that something is seriously different about Cole, and eventually the boy lets Malcolm in on his secret: he sees dead people, “walking around like regular people.”

As haunting as the film’s trailer is — who can forget the kid whispering, “I see dead people”? — this revelation comes halfway through the film, and if Cole’s secret hadn’t already been given away, this could have been another extremely potent twist in the plot. But The Sixth Sense works just as well as a (practically) two-character drama as it does a genuinely spooky suspense flick. Just as Malcolm helps Cole deal with his “freakishness,” Cole helps Malcolm deal with his strained relationship with his wife, Anna (Olivia Williams: The Postman). And since Malcolm is a meaty character role despite being the lead, Willis is excellent, with no sign of the cocky hamminess (as fun as that sometimes is) that characterizes his action roles. Willis can be brilliant in the right part, and here he hits just-right notes of frustration and anger, concern and caring. His performance is touching and emotional. But Osment steals the movie, showing a maturity well beyond his years. His sad eyes and long face betray the burden of the secret he has kept from everyone — Cole is a child who has had unwanted knowledge thrust upon him, and Osment somehow balances appropriate childishness with the weight of a wisdom that many adults could not handle.

The Sixth Sense is wonderfully written and lovingly directed by M. Night Shyamalan. The script is full of subtle symbolism — as in character names: Crowe = crow, traditionally a familiar of the dead; Sear = seer, as in someone with supernatural sight — and a real sense of place — the film is set in Philadelphia, a city with a long and often violent history; it’s easy to imagine such a place haunted by the spectres of the dead. Cole and his mother (a fabulous Toni Collette) share one of the best, most loving mother/son relationships I’ve seen onscreen — Shyamalan as well as his actors capture the frustration of trying to protect those we love from our awful secrets.

If I have one quibble with The Sixth Sense, it’s that I wish that its big secret had been left more open to interpretation. Audiences tend not to like ambiguity, I know, and even find themselves confused by it — I couldn’t help overhearing the couple sitting behind me, as the credits rolled, marvel to each other that not until the twist was fully explained right at the end did they “get” it. But I’d have loved if Shyamalan had just clipped the last two minutes or so from the movie. Those who look at movies straightforwardly wouldn’t have even noticed the subtext running through the film, but the rest of us could have had a lot of fun debating the issue: Is X the case, or isn’t it?

But that is a minor, minor cavil. The Sixth Sense is easily one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and one I’m sure I will enjoy over and over again once it comes to video.

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