Friday, 23 June 2017

The Sixth Sense (1999)

Fig 1 - The Sixth Sense Poster
Say what you will about the films of M. Night Shyamalan, but I am never more confident of his abilities as a director than I am after (yet again) rewatching The Sixth Sense. In fact, the very first 12A certificate film I saw in cinemas was Signs back in 2002. My memory of the experience sticks out like sore thumb in my mind, as at the tender age of eight I had no idea just how many sleepless nights the film would bring upon me for many years to come. Eventually however, I grew to love my enemy (despite it's stupendously flawed twist, even for Shyamalan) and have followed the director's career closely ever since. An undoubted decline in quality seems to have plagued his films in the new millennium, leading me to eventually give up on his work post-Devil (2010). But I always find myself back at The Sixth Sense realising, like many others, what creative potential Shyamalan has within him. Not to say he hasn't made his attempts, as the high-concept work he does produce is, if nothing else, at least something different. Either way, when a name becomes synonymous with the word "twist" as strongly as the name "Sandler" is with "terrible", he's got to be doing something original.

The Sixth Sense begins with a scene in which child-psychologist Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is visited by an ex-patient who breaks into his home and shoots him unexpectedly. The film then jumps forward to a point at which Malcolm's marriage is falling apart due to work commitments. He becomes fascinated with a new patient by the name of Cole (Haley Joel Osment), a troubled nine-year-old boy who wants nothing more than to live a normal life. However, Cole's dark secret makes his attempts to appear ordinary evermore difficult, until finally he is forced to divulge the fact that he "sees dead people". Malcolm then takes it upon himself to help Cole figure out why this is and whether or not there is a solution to his supernatural predicament...

The film is only one of four nominees in Oscar history to be considered for the "horror" genre, losing out on six potential wins overall. Nevertheless, it has since become one of the most popular thrillers to date, including one of the most inventive uses of a "plot twist" in cinematic history.

Fig 2 - The Sixth Sense - Cole
What I truly appreciated about the film this time around was just how considered the sound of everything is. From the eerie title music by James Newton Howard, it is instantly clear that we're settling into a 'ghost film', which carries over into the SFX in subtle ways. For instance, an early moment sees Cole standing in front of his school dreading another day of being the outcast, in which we hang on a shot of his reluctance with the sound of the bell clanging endlessly. But as the shot lingers, the chime of the bell pitch shifts lower into the distance, creating what sounds like the shrill wailing of an undead scream. It's a subtle edit, but it lasts long enough that it's unquestionably deliberate. This sound design gives the backdrop of the old Philadelphia buildings a sense of age and dread. Halloween is only hinted at in passing, but there's something innately spooky about the setting that works perfectly in conjunction with the violent jerk of strings we get upon seeing a ghost.

For my money, Haley Joel Osment gives the performance of a lifetime in this film. His range for a child actor feels uncannily backed-up by decades of training. Yet, Osment was only eleven during filming and still manages to convey the same emotional depth and dimension of a career-professional thrice his senior. The penultimate scene of the film also showcases Toni Collette's abilities in the best way possible, as the conclusion to her character's loss of control finally culminates in an emotional flood of understanding. Of course, Willis also delivers a great performance as Cole's aide to the unusual situation he finds himself in. It's not a 'showy' role, but it's heartfelt enough to make me forget about his persona as an action star.

Overall, I think The Sixth Sense is a near-perfect film. Whether you know the twist or not, there is always a detail embedded in the rich structure to pick up on later. Sentimental, dark and ultimately gripping, Shyamalan proves his genius with The Sixth Sense in such a way that hasn't been topped by him since. Or by many others, for that matter.


Fig. 1 The Sixth Sense Poster (1999) From: The Sixth Sense - Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

Fig. 2 The Sixth Sense Screenshot (1999) From: The Sixth Sense - Directed by: M. Night Shyamalan

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