The Sixth Sense (1999) — Deserving of ‘classic’ status

“I see dead people.”

Justin’s rating: The Catchphrase That Was Run Into The Ground

Justin’s review: Sometimes a theater viewing experience can be more memorable for the events that surrounded you seeing it. Other times, you just remember where you were when you saw one of the most amazing films of the year. In my situation with The Sixth Sense, it was both of these. I vividly remember the circumstances of the day I saw it, because not only was I sick as a dog, but I had lost my contact lenses, forcing me to watch the film through (I swear this is true) red-tinted prescription sunglasses at the theater. So my initial viewing of The Sixth Sense seemed a lot more bloody than it actually was, but that didn’t stop me from just falling for the sweet croonings of a film that knows how to be a good movie.

For a movie that uses a hefty dose of supernatural plot elements, it’s amazing that (reportedly) The Sixth Sense uses not a single special effect. Instead, director M. Night Shyamalan (Unbreakable, Signs) focused on making this film timeless, shying away from the traditional grab bag of horror-thriller shucksters. Sure, there are tense and somewhat scary moments in here, but the emphasis leans way the heck away from SFX and jump scares and action sequences in order to tell a good story in a great way. This is one of those rare movies where I’d give it the compliment of being like a treasured book, one that you don’t want to put down until you’ve drunk every last word.

That The Sixth Sense became incredibly popular — both in the box office and in the Land of Clichéd Sayings — is not in doubt, but I think the good chunk of the people who liked this film probably did for the wrong reasons. It’s well-known that there are two major twists to the story, the first (not a spoiler, since you’d have to be very, very sheltered to not know this) is that Cole, a young boy, can see and speak to ghosts. This “surprising” twist covered up for the second one, which I won’t spoil for you, but it ended up being a cool little mindjob that encouraged people to see the movie at least twice.

These twists are all well and good, but honestly, they’re not what makes The Sixth Sense a terrific flick.

I’ve said it before, and I’m sure this is as dull and repetitive a statement that I like to drag out of my war chest (complete with my entire line of 1990 G.I. Joe action figures), but the best movies become that way when the filmmakers know their craft so well that the story flows seemingly effortlessly without drawing any attention to any shortcomings. In other words, Shyamalan helped to create a movie that does a hundred little things right, and because of that, you don’t typically notice any of those. You just know, deep-down, that Here There Be Near-Perfection.

On one level, I dig the two main relationships in this film — between Cole and his mother, and Cole and his psychiatrist — and how they develop and progress during a strange time in their lives. Bruce Willis is so understated here: A morose, dark-humored character who tries to help a hurting kid without realizing that this interaction is also helping him in a much-needed way. Haley Joel Osmont and Willis click together in a sadly sweet duet, and you feel for both of them for their stories.

Kids in movies tend to be falsely played as super-wise omniscient beings, preaching down to us know-nothing adults, which usually rubs me wrong. Unlike velour, which can never, ever rub me wrong. Okay, didn’t mean for that to be creepy, sorry. Anyway, one of my college professors, who is also a film critic, wrote in protest of this trend as well, saying (to the effect) that children aren’t generally wise enough to properly clothe themselves, never mind giving adults morality lessons. Understand, I’m not putting kids down — I think they’re terrific and funny and sometimes do have a unique perspective on the world. It’s just that Hollywood’s put them on a golden platform from where there is no failing or falling.

However, here Osmont gets to play a kid as a kid; a child who has a strange ability, yes, but a child who also doesn’t understand the bigger picture, who has more fear than courage, and who needs the help of the two adults in his life (his mom and this new father figure). His ability allows (forces?) him to realize certain aspects of the adult world and grow up sooner than he might normally, and you can see the confusion and agony behind his eyes for this. The question of the film becomes, can there be a silver lining to this horrible “gift,” or is it grossly unfair to a child who already has it rough?

On another level, I appreciate The Sixth Sense for its subtle approach to the traditional topic of ghosts. The movie plays on our subconscious knowledge and fears instead of having a computer generated monster booga-boogaing out from the shadows. It proves that small touches, like the drop of temperature when ghosts are around, are far more memorable than a boogeyman with an axe.

While there are several moments in this film that will spook or unsettle you, there are just as many that will nearly break your heart. It’s a movie about pain, about needing help from others, about being alone in your problems — for both adults and kids. It could’ve been a lot darker, or a lot less masterful, but for our joy it wasn’t. It might be a no-brainer to say this is an awesome movie, but it can take quite a while to nail down all the reasons why.

Didja notice?

  • Notice all the reflection shots (like through the plaque at the beginning) — Shyamalan also did this in Unbreakable
  • The hand with a gun in the bathroom doorway, just for a split second
  • The color red
  • The school bell ring that ends up fading into the distance for a long time
  • The “stepping” game scene is great in so many ways – notice how the camera moves forward and back as well
  • The coldness associated with a supernatural presence
  • The pictures in the hallway silently give an entire backstory to Cole
  • Bruce Willis played a character called Cole in Twelve Monkeys (both movies also take place in Philly)
  • Director M. Night Shyamalan cameos as the doctor who examines Cole Sear after the “accident” at the birthday party.
  • The voice on the tape of Vincent’s session is speaking Spanish, the person is saying: “Please, I don’t want to die sir, save me, save me.”

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