Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Bruce Willis, Haley Joel Osment, Toni Collette
Streaming: YouTube (Rent, £2.49; Buy, £9.99), Amazon Prime Video (Rent, £2.49; Buy, £9.99), Sky (Buy, £11.99)
To me, the best film is the one that can be watched over and over again. In films like The Godfather and Pulp Fiction, the more you know, the more you notice. Familiarity breeds complexity; consecutive watches of The Godfather almost mean you notice the cotton wool balls in Marlon Brando’s cheeks; for Pulp Fiction, it gives you some breathing room to digest and appreciate the fragmented timeline. This is not true for The Sixth Sense.
The world was a different place in 1999, and one that wasn’t really familiar with M. Night Shyamalan. Today, the director and his films are renowned for one thing and one thing alone: late, shocking twists that totally change the course of the film you’ve just watched.
I never watched The Sixth Sense when it was originally released, but given its twist is something of an open secret, I knew more than I needed to when I did. And while I dearly wish I could turn back time, forget that, and experience the film unwittingly, knowing how it ends utterly ruins the experience.
On paper, the story is about Dr Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis): a sometimes-quirky and softly spoken rockstar among child psychologists. He takes on the case of Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), a quiet, unusual boy troubled by visions of the paranormal.
Bruce Willis’ performance is as good as any others in his late 20th century heyday, but Osment’s acting is the real jewel in this film’s crown. At the time of filming, he was a 10 year old boy; that he could hold his own in scenes with long-established actors like Willis and Collette and manage to steal the show is incredible. It redefined what it meant to be a child actor, along with other performances in the 1990s (think Macaulay Culkin in the Home Alone films).
Despite this, the film’s dialogue often feels clunky and inhuman. The back-and-forths between Malcolm and Cole are emotionally believable, but linguistically strange. These exchanges rarely feel like they’re driving the plot forward, but somehow, they do. The majority of the film’s narrative, however, is clean, if a little unusual, save for its infamous twist.
What does it mean if knowing a film’s twist renders it truly unwatchable? Even when I watch The Usual Suspect, Citizen Kane, and Shutter Island, for example, I still find them engaging. When watching The Sixth Sense, I just recognised how every single scene the film hadcarefully put in place was there to serve that one moment of realisation. Sure, the payoff is incredible, but it’s like Shyamalan has almost spent 90 minutes setting up the world’s greatest practical joke. It can never, ever, ever work again.
At the beginning of this review, I brought up Pulp Fiction and The Godfather. These are films that are deep and rich in nuance and complexity. There’s a reason that horror films are rarely critically acclaimed, especially those that rely on jump scares. Fundamentally, surprise is a cheap storytelling device. And while it can be used in a nuanced way, to build an entire narrative experience around a single moment of surprise is a tremendous risk.
I am torn about this film. It is well-acted, well-directed, and to some extent well-written, but not in a way that brings me satisfaction. Watching it for the first time with a knowledge of its twist means I recognise that every scene serves it. It is definitely not rewatchable, and I’m not sure if I’d call it watchable for those who know too much about it. I admire what it tries to do, but not the way in which it does it.
Image Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons